WOONSOCKET – The city's Museum of Work and Culture tells the story of an industry — textile manufacturing — that once was king in the Blackstone Valley but largely no longer exists as a key force in its economy.
Now, visitors to Market Square can learn about another onetime staple of the Rhode Island economy that has also seen its better days and may be following a similar path into history: trap fishing off the Rhode Island shoreline.
An exhibit of 40 photographs by photographer and author Markham Starr entitled “In History's Wake, The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island” opened in the museum's upstairs gallery on Thursday and offers a look at the fish-gathering method that once occupied hundreds of anglers on Rhode Island Sound.
Starr’s black and white photographs tell the story of a small group of Rhode Island trap fishermen that continue that trade today with just a few traps and the small flotilla of boats that tend them.
The fishermen's ocean weathered faces peer out of the photographer's prints and their hands are shown hauling up the heavy nets to tighten up the encirclement of their catch.
Starr, a resident of North Stonington, Conn., began his project to photograph the trap fishing industry after completing an initial study of the commercial fisherman of Point Judith.
He told the gathering of museum supporters and visitors showing up for the opening that he got the idea for the trap fishing project after spotting a string of fishing boats near the docks that did not have the typical commercial fishing gear used by trawler fishermen. Starr said he quickly learned that the boats were used as part of an ancient form of fishing that can be traced to Native Americans and even to Roman times and traps built in the Mediterranean that continued in use well into the past century.
“It was a practice passed down between generations,” he said while explaining how the long-established traps were still in use to catch tuna about 20 years ago.
New England's Native Americans built wire-type traps with rows of stakes and woven barriers in calm inland waters to catch migrating fish, Starr related. But after Europeans arrived in New England, a new practice was introduced using anchored lines and nets creating trap areas off the Rhode Island coast, he said.
The industry boomed in the 1800s and 1900s before the age of powered fishing boats came into vogue, and boasted more than a 100 trap fishing companies competing for the annual migrations of fish in Rhode Island's offshore waters.
The easy availability of engine-powered steel fishing boats after World War II eventually supplanted most of the near-shore fishing endeavors with off-shore fishing practices that have left a fleet of just four trap companies working the trade in Rhode Island today, two in the Newport-Sakonnet Point area and two out of Point Judith.
The traps are set up to interrupt migratory routes of fish such as scup, striped bass, mackerel, squid and other species. They typically feature a 1,500-foot-long barrier net running out from the shore to the trap zone. Fish encountering the barrier net turn and move along its course to find a way around it and in the process enter a series of funnel-like nets running from surface floats to bottom weights that ultimately direct the fish into the box net. A trawler-size catch boat tows three smaller boats out to the trap each day so that a crew of net-pulling fishermen can reduce the size of the box net and consolidate the catch to a pool of swirling fish that can then be collected by the main boat's crew members with a large dip net.
The trap fishing practice is closely regulated by state and federal authorities as are all other forms of commercial fishing. Starr said trap crews must mind the size of the fish they collect, keep only allowed species and also maintain a process of record keeping and tagging for the catch they keep.
The method of fishing is more renewable than other forms of commercial fishing since the fish not kept have not been harmed by hooking, pulled up from great depths, or kept on board long before being released.
Most companies have 10 to 20 fishing sites available to them but traditionally set their traps in the same two to three locations each spring. The traps are maintained and fished through the summer and taken down in the late fall as the fishing season ends. Although durable and able to survive New England's sometimes challenging maritime weather, crews will break down a trap if a hurricane threatens the Ocean State as they tend to do from time to time, according to Starr.
His projects recording the lives and work habits of the state's commercial fishermen have shown them to be an independent but likable sort who love their lifestyle even with all of its challenges, Starr said.
“If they could just fish, that would be easy, but fishing is only a minor part of what they do,” he said. To be a trap fisherman, you have to know how to tend nets and repair them when they are ashore, maintain the boats and their engines, and know and follow all of the ever-changing fishing regulations.
Changes in the market are also a concern. Starr said the better financed corporate commercial fishing operations appear to be squeezing out the small independent commercial fishing ones that have long called Rhode Island home.
“So their future is somewhat doubtful,” Starr told the gathering while standing in front of his digital photographs of the trap fishermen. It was a message that echoes the fate of the textile industry that once powered the Blackstone Valley's economy and was not lost on the museum visitors touring the new exhibit.
Museum co-managers Anne Conway and Raymond Bacon thanked Starr for bringing his photographs to the Blackstone Valley and also Historic New England for serving as co-sponsor of the exhibit. The photographic show will run through June 15.
Starr, a graduate of Wesleyan University, has exhibited his previous work at the Mystic Arts Center in Connecticut, the Slater Memorial Museum, and the Norwich Center for the Arts. He is the author of “Building the Greenland Kayak” and is also seeking to publish his project “Endangered Species: The Commercial Fishermen of Point Judith” in book form.