Fishing for a Living

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on September 1, 2002

Some days out on the ocean, Jaime Santos feels life can’t get any better. “In winter, on a really clear day with blue skies and white caps on the waves, I’m in awe at how beautiful the sea is,” he says.

It is one of the many faces of the ocean that Santos, 42, has come to know. For 20 years this fisherman out of New Bedford, Mass., has pulled his nets across the floor of the North Atlantic, fishing for cod, haddock, and flounder aboard the 85-foot trawler, Lady of Grace. His reverence for the sea, however, is tempered by respect.

“In winter, take the same white-capped waves and add clouds and rain, and it’s miserable,” he says.

Sometimes it’s worse than miserable. Santos recalls once fishing the Grand Banks with his younger brother, Tony—a thousand miles from land—where they had no where to run when the remnants of a hurricane hurtled toward them. Their only option was to ride out the howling winds and 40-foot seas by stationing a man at the wheel and another at the throttle, heading the bow into the wind to keep from broaching.

“It put the fear of the Lord in me,” says Santos, whose heavily muscled build is testament to the rigors of a fisherman’s life.

A 10-day fishing trip requires much preparation. Two 100-by-150-foot nets, wrapped around giant spools at the stern, are mended. Fuel is replenished, food and water stocked, and 30 tons of ice for packing fish is loaded. Most importantly, the boat is made sound.

The captain’s job is to find fish. When that happens, crews work nonstop lowering two 1,000-pound steel skids, which take the nets to the ocean floor. After two hours, the nets are winched up and the catch dumped on deck. Anything salable—even a 10-cent fish—is cleaned and packed in ice.

The sea is a harsh tutor, teaching Santos to heed not only the signs of sky and water but also his inner voice. “There are times you get worried,” he says. “You have to know your boat, be able to read the sea, and do what needs to be done.”

Much of what he knows comes from his father, Jaime Sr. As a young man in Portugal, the senior Santos was navigator on a government-owned “fish factory,” a grueling job that kept him at sea for six months at a time. In 1962, he brought his family to the United States, laboring in factories for years before buying his own boat.

“He’s always had the sea in him,” the younger Santos says. “I give him credit. He came here with nothing.”

In the 1970s, fisheries were booming and a 10-day haul would net 70,000-80,000 pounds of fish. For a while, father and sons fished together, a difficult time for the boys’ mother, who hid her fears. Santos recalls returning from one storm-lashed trip to a mother who was almost delirious with relief.

The boom times are gone now, Santos says, the result of a free-for-all atmosphere when boats fished virtually nonstop. Plummeting fish levels resulted in federal restrictions reducing the number of fishing days allowed each boat and closing certain spawning grounds.

Since then, New Bedford’s fishery has lost 170 boats and more than 700 jobs, says Rodney Avila, a retired fisherman who heads a fishermen’s nonprofit assistance center. After 37 years at sea, Avila too understands its allure.

“You’re in your own world out there,” he says. “No traffic, no people running around with deadlines.”

Avila and Santos both say the regulations will ultimately help the fishing industry, pointing to a rebound in stocks since they were implemented. Evidence of the rebound surfaced in a state survey of the fish caught by 18 fishing boats, including Santos’ Lady of Grace. The data will help ensure that Santos and others can continue working on the sea they love, so he’s grateful for the chance to help.

“I can’t think of another job I’d be able to tolerate,” he says.