August 2006

nonfiction

The Doryman's Reflection: A Fisherman's Life by Paul Molyneaux

I grew up on the Florida coast and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the ocean and fishing. My father used to take my brother and me surf fishing, casting out long poles into the Atlantic and then parking them into tall cut pieces of PVC pipe that we jammed down in the sand. He sat in his low beach chair and read the Sporting News while we tried to build castles. Mostly we caught whiting -- not a terribly exciting fish, but a very exciting way to spend a morning. My brother still goes fishing when he can (he’d spend his life doing it if someone would pay him to hang out at the beach and listen to baseball games on the radio), but I haven’t had a pole in ages. I was intrigued by Paul Molyneaux’s book, The Doryman’s Reflection: A Fisherman’s Life, because he took his childhood love for fishing and turned it into a career as a commercial fisherman. I did not expect this book to so elegantly transcend one man’s memories, though, nor did I think I would learn so much about the fishing industry and everything good and bad about life on the sea.

The first two sections of Doryman follow Molyneaux’s love for fishing from a childhood spent under his grandfather’s instruction at his farm in Pennsylvania to an adult desire to get a “site” or job in any commercial fishing capacity he could find. He also includes a thorough and highly readable analysis of the Stratton Commission Report, the 1969 document that has governed all modern commercial fishing. The major flaw of this report according to Molyneaux is that it assumed a virtually endless source of marine life for fishermen to exploit. The results have been even more devastating than those of the period that predated the Report, as the July issue of National Geographic explains:.

[N]inety percent of the world’s pelagic fishes, like tuna, marlin and sharks, gone; three-quarters of the world’s major fisheries exploited, overfished and depleted; and enough oil spilling out of U.S. cars to equal an Exxon Valdez-size spill every eight months. Nearly 150 dead zones now occur around the world, including one off the Oregon coast that first appeared in 2002 and that has recurred twice since.

Molyneaux knows all of this and more; he spent the '80s fishing from California to Alaska and back to New England. He has gone after tuna, herring, codfish, swordfish, scallops, and even snails and sea urchins. Eventually he enrolled in a government program that retrained fishermen, and ended up with a degree in writing and literature. He didn’t leave the industry far behind however. His insight into the lives of fishermen and his ability to convey their thoughts and opinions is irreplaceable. It is all too clear from reading Doryman (as well as articles like National Geographic’s recent “Loving Our Coasts to Death”) that often the only fishermen who are heard in regulatory conversations about the oceans are those with the big industry dollars behind them. The family fishermen, the ones who come from generations who made their living on the sea, have been lost in the national debate. Molyneaux is aware of this and bothered by it; Doryman is his shot at making those voices heard.

Because the story he is trying to tell is larger than his own, Molyneaux includes an in-depth look at the LeBlanc and Raynes families and their generations of fishing off the coast of Maine. Bernard and Alton Raynes were close friends of Molyneaux and he mines their family for a look at an American way of life that is facing extinction. Through the lens of the Raynes family, readers are able to see how much has changed in the world of commercial fishing, from the equipment to the laws to the fish themselves, and how hard the men have struggled to keep abreast of those changes in spite of the ever present threat of economic destruction.

Molyneaux resists painting the fishermen as saints, though. Bernard Raynes admits that they overfished. The fishermen could not see the big picture, and certainly not one as large as all of the world’s oceans, when they were riveted by their own personal economic destruction. They needed to fish to survive, and so they fished until there was nothing left.

However, it is the factory boats, the enormous industrial trawlers, that are most to blame for the current state of emergency in our oceans. It is also all of the waste that has accompanied commercial fishing over the years -- all of the fish that no one wants or can’t make money off of that die needlessly in pursuit of the big dollar catches -- that is truly coming back to haunt us. In Molyneaux’s opinion no one is paying enough attention. (“What about the wealth of knowledge we’re losing when small boat fishermen disappear in a consolidated fleet?” he asked a spokesperson for the Ocean Conservancy. “That can be replaced with technology,” he answered.) So much for learning from past mistakes.

Molyneaux is clear that a combined effort is needed to address the current crisis and the many opposing government, industry, and environment forces are frustrating to the extreme in their narrow-minded thinking. He points to the Marine Protected Areas concept as a potential success story and includes the thoughts of ecological economists Peter Tyedmers and Stewart Smith, who weigh the value of self-sufficiency and ecologic footprints against the bottom-line dollar models that have been used in the past. This idea of seeing a bigger picture, both for individuals and the society, is something we are just beginning to consider for many industries beyond fishing. It is a critical component in fixing the problem, for as Molyneaux explains, “in the eleventh hour, eco-economists are learning how to calculate what continued economic growth in fisheries -- now taking place in aquaculture rather than fleet expansion -- will cost.”  This new calculation method could not come soon enough as the threat of aquacultures to the surrounding wildlife expands everyday with the discovery of new diseases caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

There are really several books within The Doryman’s Reflection, as Molyneaux is a man who has enjoyed several lives in pursuit of his passion for fishing. Fortunately one of those lives led him to writing, and now readers can enjoy his very impressive and highly entertaining look at an industry that Americans take for granted. This book is perfect for any nature reader or fishing enthusiast (and has holiday gift for Dad written all over it) but really should be read on the broadest of scales. Our generation has a lot of cleaning up to do, in a lot of different ways. By sharing his biggest fishing adventures Molyneaux has found a way to show us yet another area of the planet (and working society) that needs our attention.

The Doryman’s Reflection: A Fisherman’s Life  by Paul Molyneaux
Thunder’s Mouth Press
ISBN: 1560258446
266 pages