OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / TENDING THE BOTTOM
MIKE REGO / LOBSTERMAN / TRURO
Mike Rego may see the handwriting on the wall for lobstering out of Provincetown. But for now he’s in full stride, skilled and experienced, in love with what he does. He is the manifestation of the classic bumper sticker: A bad day fishing is better than the best day at the office. And he’s part of a new breed, too – fishermen working with scientists to clean up the bottom of the harbor. Here’s Mike in his words. You can go to the digital edition of The Provincetown Independent to listen to Mike’s voice.
I grew up in Provincetown, fourth generation from Provincetown. Everybody was a fishing family, pretty much. You'd have a baseball game. All the fishermen would be there, all the town’s people would be there. You'd win championships, and they’d throw parades for you down the street. It brought the whole community together. Everybody knew who you were. If you were getting in trouble, by the time you got home, your parents already knew you were doing something bad. You couldn't get away with anything here.
Back in probably the late sixties, there were 70 boats fishing out of this harbor. You had three fish houses with 18 wheelers going up and down the pier every day, every single day. You'd have boats, five deep. So, it was cool watching it all develop. But by the time I was a junior in high school, you saw a lot of the older guys starting to get out. Fuel and everything else, maintenance on a boat, just got more and more expensive. And the price of fish stayed the same for years. Growing up with my dad being a fisherman, he would tell me this is going to end badly.
I started seeing it, but to me it didn't matter. That's what I wanted to do. I just fell in love with it. From the first time I went, I remember us steaming home. I was just hanging out with my dad coming across Herring Cove beach, and the sun setting behind the boat, the rumble of the engine, and the birds working in the background. You're your own person out there. And I just liked the freedom of it, whether it was a bad day where you ripped the net all to pieces and you didn't catch anything, or the days where there was so much fish in the boat, you had to stop fishing and come home, because it was going to take you that long to clean it all.
Once I graduated, I could get a job on almost any boat I wanted. I earned my right to become part of the gang, you know? And everybody had your back. If you needed something, all those guys would have your back in a matter of minutes.
My grandfather was a draggerman. My father, he grew up a draggerman. I mean, you looked at the men back then. They were just all muscle, their hands alone were like catchers mitts. To me, those guys are like legends. They had a good life, and they made a lot of money back in the day. Like a lot of money. In this town they made more money than people working at banks or anything else. Every captain had a house in Provincetown, and they owned their boat. They all had new trucks. They had everything. Those guys were the guys. I mean, that's who you looked up to.
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I'm 46, and I've had my own boat now for 19 years. I would say lobstering is the most expensive fishery there is. If you have 800 pots, you're well over a hundred thousand dollars just in gear. I throw a hundred thousand dollars out in the ocean, it could be gone tomorrow -- a storm, somebody doesn't like you. You go out tomorrow, there’d be nothing left. And what do you do?
Everybody thinks you go lobstering and you take your pots out of the water, that's it. I'll see you next season. Well, it isn’t. It's 12 months out of the year, even though you're not fishing, there's three or four months of just nothing but gear work. Then you throw a boat into the mix. There's always something to do on a boat!
At the beginning of the season, everything's painted, all new flags on the buoys.
When it comes out, your buoys don't look new anymore. They're all furry and full of seaweed. If I showed you a buoy when it first went in the water, you’d think, Oh, it’s really pretty, like new gear. By the time January came around, you wouldn't even recognize what it is.
About 10 years ago, Laura Ludwig from the Center for Coastal Studies approached me about grappling, which is towing a metal hook on the bottom and trying to recover debris -- lost traps, garbage. Back in the day, guys, draggermen, scallopers, they’d get a bunch of old ghost traps. They had a spot where they threw them all. So you're looking at 50 years, probably more, of people throwing stuff.
Scientists tow the sonar behind the boat. They’ll just map the bottom. It’ll show you the debris that’s down there. They’ll give you targets on a chart. A lot of times what we’ll do is make slow circles. The slower I can go and the tighter circles I can make, I can have the whole grapple tending flat on the bottom. And we seem to catch a lot more stuff that way.
It was overwhelming how much stuff we actually got, thousands and thousands of pounds – bicycles, we've gotten gas grills, we've gotten batteries. We've got toilets.
I think we've done a pretty good job over the years, ‘cause now we go back to the places that we've gone to previous years, and it's real hard to get something out of there. I love doing it. I really like the science part of it. I've learned a lot, kind of makes me feel satisfied, like I've gotten some stuff off the bottom of the ocean that doesn't belong there, like gill nets and stuff that’s just killing everything in its path.
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My daughter's 13, and she's totally into the environment. She really likes that we're cleaning up the bottoms and trying to protect the ocean. For my daughter's generation, in terms of fishing, I think it's going to be hard. I wouldn't encourage my daughter to get into it. I wouldn't encourage any young people to get into it. I think we're a dying breed all the way around. The way things are going right now, I would say in 10 years, you won't have a lobsterman, not here, not in Provincetown. The handwriting's on the wall.
My daughter, Lillian, is a great artist. That's where her heart's at. And that's when she wants to do. I hope she goes that direction. I really do. She's in a great place for it. It’s kind of like what fishing was back in the day where, you know, you had a bunch of guys behind you saying, You love it. Let's go. Let’s do it!
Here with the art community, I think she has a great opportunity to really succeed and have a lot of support. And with her, I'm glad. She knows who she is, and she knows what she wants to do at the age of 13. That's great. And it reminds me of myself, because when I was 13, I knew what I wanted to do. Provincetown has always been art and fishing. That's what made this whole town for as far back as you can remember.