It's weir fishing season again. I described the fishery here, last year, and two years ago, I wrote a piece about the Eldredge family and their weir for Edible Cape Cod. This spring I met Nick Muto, who fishes with the only other weir company on the Cape.
He told me a lot of interesting things. Weir fishing is old, older than I realized. The tradition of setting up nets and poles in the spring to catch migratory species dates back thousands of years. Even fifty years ago, in April and May, there were weirs every hundred yards or so along the shore here—all along Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. Nick says he's heard all the roads leading from 6a to the beach are old trap roads where the horses dragged the poles down to the sea. He's seen nets filled with 30,000, 40,000 pounds, but he's heard stories of weirs backed up with hundreds of thousands of pounds of squid, panicking, shooting ink. Each time the net emptied it would refill again—stories from the glory days.
These days, there are only two weir companies operating on the Cape. There aren't nearly as many fish around—Nick thinks this is in part because of midwater trawlers and also because there are so many seals today—and so there isn't much money to be made. There's also a demand issue—we've forgotten how to eat all these migratory fish, the more unusual species like butterfish and tautog and mackerel and squid. The company Nick works with sells most of their product down south, to places that freeze and hold the fish. The other weir company recently started operating a CSF, or Community Supported Fishery, where they sell "shares" to families on the Cape.
It would be nice to see a comeback for this fishery. Can you imagine—weirs up and down the shores of the Cape? Posts and nets lining the bay? It's a much more sustainable fishery than most—Nick estimates 80-90% of bycatch gets thrown back still alive, returned to the sea. And eating something besides cod and haddock would spread around the demand, help all the fisheries.
The next time you go to your local fishmarket, ask about the migratory species. In the spring do they sell local squid? Pogies? Scup? Herring? What about weir-caught bluefish and black sea bass? Butterfish? Mackerel? Tautog?
It's a tradition worth reviving.