So & So

Sea Change

Four local fishermen serve up the truth about making a living at sea

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There is the romantic depiction of the life of a fisherman, complete with clear sky sunrises and porpoises leapfrogging in the distance. Then there is the actual life of the modern fisherman in Rhode Island, which means something very different than it did even a few decades ago. The job description no longer simply reads “catching fish.” To thrive, fishermen and women must also be businessmen and women; they must act as engineers, risk takers, problem solvers, lovers of independence and, above all, stewards of the ocean.

It’s not an easy task to schedule an interview with a fisherman. He’ll tell you to catch him on a windy day. But if you’re persistent, he’ll tell you to meet him on a day when he’s docked and working on his boat. This is how I hook Mike Marchetti. Although I know better, I half expect to find him in the quintessential fisherman garb – rubber overalls and a slicker – as I walk down the dock to Mister G, his 50-foot boat built in Nova Scotia. Point Judith is muggy, and without a breeze to keep them moving, tiny black gnats have already begun encircling my head. Mike turns off his Caterpillar engine so we don’t have to talk over the rumbling.

“What you put into this business is what you get out of it,” says Mike. A lobsterman for more than 28 years, he has turned heavily to sea scalloping in the last few. Though the summer and into the fall is the time to set lobster pots, Mike isn’t sure if he wants to set any this year. “Lobstering was great in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, then the oil spill happened,” he says. “The price of lobster never really recovered. It’s not easy to make a good day’s pay on it anymore.” Mike explains that although lobstering is fun, there is significantly more money in scalloping and the expenses are sharply less. He can catch 400 pounds of scallops a day and sell them for an average of $10 a pound or more.

As we talk and I take notes, the gnats bite me. I jot then swat, jot then swat. Mike doesn’t seem to notice them at all. “I grew up on this pond and I’ve worked on boats since I was young. I’ve found that there’s a great satisfaction in surviving the day and just getting things done,” he says. “But fishing can also be all-consuming if you’re not careful. You end up spending a God-awful amount of time on a boat.”

Mike is a year-round fisherman and believes himself to be fully invested in the job. He is president of the Eastern New England Scallop Association, as well as the Point Judith Fisherman Memorial Foundation, and the former president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association.

Mike Marchetti is a lobsterman who turned to scalloping when the lobster market took a hit (Photo: Melissa Stimpson)

Mike is showing me his dredge, weighing in at 2,000 pounds when empty. It is a modified turtle deflector dredge, acquired with a grant through a project working to avoid by-catch. The dredge also drags less, which makes it more fuel efficient. “I may catch slightly less fish, but I’m also minimizing by-catch and burning less fuel. I use 100-110 gallons a day with the modified dredge, compared to over 150 gallons.”

Mike has also begun to dabble in aquaculture, growing mussels on 600-foot long ropes in the bay with Greg Matatonas, a fellow Point Judith fisherman. Suspended in the water column, the mussels get plenty of sunlight and full flow of nutrients. Without the threat of predators such as crabs or starfish, the mussels grow a thinner shell and fatter meat, and as filter feeders, they help clarify the water in the bay. Greg currently does the day-to-day maintenance of the mussel farming while Mike focuses on scalloping.

A normal day for Mike begins at 2:30 in the morning. He leaves the dock by 3:30am for the three-hour ride out. Around 6:30am, he will have the first of the day’s eight to ten tows, finishing up right before sunset. Mike tells me that he took his time coming back to shore a few days before; whales feeding and slapping their tails came within feet of the boat and he stopped to watch and let them play. “The weather wasn’t great that day, but in the end, we had a good catch and a good show,” he says. 

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