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Holy mackerel: The “lowly” fish that created Cape Cod’s prosperity

A famous fish scientist, George Brown Goode, put together a team to compile a massive, multi-volume work, copiously illustrated. Captain J.W. Collins and Henry Wood Elliott did remarkable renditions of the life and times of the mackerel industry; some worked off photos, others freehand.
George Brown Goode, Captain J.W. Collins, Henry Wood Elliott
Mackerel seining from, “The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States” from 1887.

Picture hundreds of boats moving in and out of Cape Cod harbors, under sail, thousands onboard with the same mission:

Catch mackerel.

So it was in the mid-1800s, when mackerel was king and Cape Cod fishermen led not just the state but the nation in bringing them home.

These days “lowly” mackerel don’t have that image or prestige. But more than codfish or whales, mackerel powered the most prosperous economy in Cape Cod history.

Mackerel fishing started right around now, mid-May. Here’s a sense of the amazing scale:

In 1851, Wellfleet alone was home to 79 vessels targeting mackerel. Those vessels employed 832 people, men and boys, in a town of 2400 (including children). Provincetown had 61 mackerel boats, Truro 52, Harwich 48, Dennis 37, Barnstable 28, Chatham 19. Taken together, the Cape far outpaced any port in the nation.

State landings reflect the amazing effort:

In 1850-51, 330,000 barrels of mackerel were brought home. A barrel was about 40 gallons; 13.2 million gallons of one type of fish in one year.

These boats jigged, meaning men perched over the side of a schooner or sloop, hook and line in hand, and pulled or gaffed fish one by one.

Then seine boats began to show up, open vessels about 40 feet, dog-like companions to main fishing boats, playing out broad nets that circled and captured whole schools.

Purse-seining slowly diminished stocks; when you jig, you’re only catching fish that choose to bite a hook, but when you seine, every fish is taken.

One of the Cape’s great 20th century characters, George Bryant from Provincetown, was a dedicated amateur historian. He liked to set records straight, correct misimpressions.

Mackerel was one of George’s favorite topics:

“When you look at the 19th century homes and institutions … you have to think of mackerel,” Bryant implored the Wellfleet Historical Society in 2001.

Not codfish, not whales.

Mackerel boats took long northern journeys into the Gulf of St. Lawrence or by Prince Edward Island. Trips could last four weeks or twice that long, packing hundreds of barrels. Fish could sell for anywhere from $4 to $10 a barrel, so there was real money. Then again, inshore smaller boats as well as weirs planted along the coast also could pull in big volume.

As far back as 1671, a Colonial code of law referred to mackerel as needing to be regulated and sustained. And they were, all the way into the era of engines, and factory trawlers hauling massive weight.

These days fishery managers are trying to rebuild mackerel stocks by forcing large “mid-water” trawlers farther off the coast. Here’s hoping that effort succeeds. They have a natural ally: A single mackerel can spawn a million or more eggs in a batch, with five or more batches a season.

We’ll never again see days when mackerel ruled the economy. Yet small as they are, for centuries they were mighty, even more powerful than their closest relative, the fish they most resemble in looks and genetics though on a profoundly different scale:

Giant tuna.