It's 4:15am on a bone-chilling spring morning where winter is still holding its icy grip on the partially frozen waters of a small New Hampshire harbor when I arrive at the docks to meet up with Mike Anderson, owner of the 51 foot Novi fishing vessel called the F/V Rimrack. Arriving hours before the typical 9-5 worker hits the snooze button for the first time, Mike is busy firing up the engine and loading supplies with deckhand Brian Flood to set off for the scallop fishing grounds and begin their day. There is no time for chit chat as Mike grabs my hand saying, "We'll talk once we're out of the harbor. Watch your head and don't fall over the side." The next 30 minutes are spent plotting the coordinates for the grounds and navigating the shallow waters of the harbor while filling out the federally mandated log books - both digitally and in quadruplicate on paper.
As the morning constellations twinkling overhead begin to give way to streaks of orange, pink and red clouds on the horizon, Mike and Brian begin preparing the deck by setting the stabilizers, holding tanks and the steel frame scallop dredge. They go through their routine underneath the blazing sodium lights with scarcely a word exchanged yet working like a well-oiled machine. Once out onto the grounds, the dredge is dropped into the algid waters and the first 90-minute drag begins. We escape the frigid air and settle into the wheelhouse to share in a cup of fresh brewed coffee, sweetened with a dab of honey bartered from the last Farmer's Market. Off to the port and stern, a handful of similar boats begin to take their place on the grounds. Pointing them out, Mike tells me "from Maine to Massachusetts, this is the entire scalloping fleet. Just 5 boats. Government regulations and restrictions have all but driven us off the grounds." His typical grounds are from the Isle of Shoals to Cape Cod in the Gulf of Maine.
With his icy blue eyes and white beard, Mike looks the role of the stereotypical sea captain. But this genuinely good natured, soft spoken gentleman has truly earned his nickname, the nice guy from Rye. He invites anyone who wants to spend a day with him aboard stating, "It gives me an opportunity to meet so many nice people, such as yourself, that I'd never otherwise get to meet." Mike grew up in Dover, New Hampshire, fishing the Piscataqua River - a natural boundary between New Hampshire and Maine - setting lobster traps with his dad and brothers. If not fishing, weekends were spent camping and hunting deep in the woods of Maine. Except for a small duration as a school teacher, Mike has spent his entire life as a full-time fisherman. In the 70's he spent some time running a lobster boat but has spent the last 35 years running scallops, squid, shrimp, cod, tuna, fluke, conch and other sea life off the New England coast.
Mike tells me with a great grin, "If it has eyes, I'll catch it."
He speaks warmly of his family as he tells me of his wonderful wife, Padi, an avid gardener and fermenter of root vegetables, who not only runs his dock sales, but also worked on Rye’s Conservation Commission, coaching soccer and, over the years, helping Mike with the family boats: F/V Mattapan Rosebud, F/V Parental Guidance, F/V Madrigan and F/V Rimrack. Padi is the daughter of a retired Navy Judge Advocate. She had the pleasure living all over the United States and Japan until settling down on the NH seacoast where she met Mike when he asked to borrow her mooring to dock his boat. They married in 1982 and have three wonderful children: Mindy 38, Rory 30 and Kelsea 28. He went on to tell me more about Kelsea, who, after fishing 15 years with him is currently working on her documentary off the coast of Chile, The Last Fisherman’s Daughter. Shooting in Chile is part of her doc reflecting similar challenges of artisanal fishing here and Chile as well.
Looking out the saltwater battered window at the rolling sea, Mike takes a serious tone and tells me the life of the New England fisherman has been decimated, much like that of the farmers, and is on the brink of extinction. The grounds they are allowed to fish continue to shrink; yielding to lobsterman, sanctuaries and unending government restrictions. Pointing to the map on his computer and motioning to the majority of the northern waters he says, "these grounds are now all lobstering grounds, we're not allowed up there." And moving to another section east of us says, "this is the western Gulf of Maine closure 15 miles wide and 60 miles long; which is protected and off limits." As big as the northern Atlantic is, looking at this map you begin to feel boxed in.
Quotas for his allotted catch have diminished over the years as well. What used to be the 'wild west' of the sea is now a tightly monitored and circumscribed operation. The few boats out here are easily outnumbered by federal employees continually checking up on them and boarding their vessels to make sure they are within regulations and all the proper permits are in place. All boats are mandated to have a Vessel Monitoring System, which Mike jokingly calls, "our ankle bracelet" so the Feds know where the boats are, 24/7. Within the system, Mike has to declare when he leaves port, locations, catch, ETA back to port, request permission for the next day fishing and much more. Mike keeps spotless records and isn't worried about being fined, though he tells me the fines are steep for the smallest infraction.
Even with all these obstacles, Mike and his family, running one of the last remaining groundfishing businesses in NH, are in this for the long haul and work tirelessly to reclaim the fishing values and heritage. Living on the seacoast, they have become a self-sustained ecosystem; growing what they need in their gardens, catching what they eat from the sea, and sharing with customers and other like minded friends and circles at local farmer’s markets. They live a relational life tied close to the land and ocean.
As we continue our endless loops in the North Atlantic, Mike goes on to tell me about the various seasons he fishes. Around December 15th begins the scallop season for him, though he's permitted to fish it year round. When allowed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, several weeks of January and February are dedicated to shrimp. Unfortunately, due to warming oceans and declining populations, the shrimping grounds have been closed by the commission for the last 2 seasons so Mike has been extending his scalloping through the winter.
The last week in April, they clean up the boat and change gear for squid season, which runs until the first week of June down in Nantucket Sound just off Cape Cod. For that entire season, Mike, Brian and Kelsea live on the boat hauling endless amounts squid as the boats deck and wheelhouse slowly become engulfed in black ink. He tells me squid is easily his favorite season, though he truly enjoys them all.
After squid season, and another scrubbing of the decks, begins the summer catch of whiting, herring, fluke, conch and horseshoe crab which lasts until fall. In September, he used to like to switch over to Tuna, but that has gone from a commercial fishery to more of a recreational fishery and no longer viable for them. The Rimrack either doesn't fish, or heads back out for scallops.
A good 90 minutes after the first dredge was dropped, Mike and Brian begin to suit up in deck gear to haul the catch. Taking controls at the winch, Mike begins to haul the 500' cable while Brian is ready to guide the chain-link net onto the deck with hooks and cables. The rings of the dredge, glistening like diamonds polished on the ocean floor, are full of scallops as well as some crab, starfish and rather large rocks. The bounty is dropped on the deck and the net is quickly reset at the bottom of the sea.
As seagulls gather off the stern, awaiting their daily offerings, Mike and Brian work fast to separate the scallops from the rest, getting the unintentional catch back into the sea as quick as possible. The scallops are placed into baskets and quickly brought to the rear of the wheelhouse to their makeshift processing room where the shells are separated and cleaned to expose the scallop muscle. Their hands move in a blur as the treasure is freed from the shell and collected in small white buckets which quickly overflow and have to be placed in one of the holding tanks to be further cleaned of sand and grit. All processing takes place immediately to ensure the best valued, cleanest, freshest catch you can possibly get. You see the pride in their eyes as the two of them work their way through this first catch (of many) of the day.
I can't help myself when Mike gives me the opportunity to eat one right off the shell. As a huge sushi fan, this was easily the best thing I've ever had and immediately realize I'll never buy seafood from a store again; the Anderson's made a lifetime dock-buyer in that instant.
The scallops are inspected, rinsed and cleaned several times before going into the holding tanks where they are chilled, not frozen, and kept in their natural saltwater. Some are destined for the Yankee Fisherman's Co-op for resale down the coast while others to fulfill orders and weekend dock sales headed by Padi. Many of their customers are repeat while a portion are people that just happen to be driving down the scenic coast in the summer that catch their sign on winding historic Route 1.
We return to Rye Harbor at around 6:00pm. Brian heads off with the days catch for market while Mike closes up the Rimrack for the night. A 14 hour day is typical for them. If the seas are not stormy, Mike can be found somewhere off the Atlantic coast doing his grind with his small crew. On many weekends, his fresh catch can be purchased right off the docks in Rye Harbor, New Hampshire.