Voices of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum: Dan Harriman

Dan Harriman, 60, is a fisherman from Cape Elizabeth and the last active operator of a mackerel weir in Maine. This interview was recorded in March 2018 at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Dan Harriman was interviewed by Galen Koch and Matt Frassica. This interview was edited by intern Kaitlyn Clark.
I live in Cape Elizabeth, my family came there in the 1890s from Denmark. My family’s fished or trapped on Richmond Island somewhere around 130 years. I think it’s the most sustainable fishery going. What we catch, if we don’t want it, we can release it alive.
It’s a fish trap, like a weir, except there’s no poles. The main box of the trap is 70 feet by 90 feet with a 600-foot leader that allows the fish to swim along the shore and then they hit the leader and they think it’s the shore, they just follow it, follow the leader. What we catch in a pound net is schooling fish. So they’re all moving in a group, and that’s really how the trap works. As long as they stay in the circular schooling motion, they’ll stay in the trap because they stay away from the funnel.

We’re not gonna fix the draggers. If [the government] would just open up the damn fishery to hook fishermen, sustainable fisheries, those big 100-foot steel [boats], they’re gonna be dinosaurs. When diesel fuel hits $5 a gallon, it’s not gonna be economically viable. If I can burn 10 gallons worth of fuel to go over and dry up a pound net with five guys and [catch] 5,000 pounds of fish, how are they gonna compete with me? Burning 3,000 gallons of fuel to go the Grand Banks or Georges or offshore is a huge issue in this business. I really think that if we opened up the fishery to sustainable means that the large-scale operations are gonna meet their own demise.

Dan Harriman laments the loss of fishing knowledge as Maine’s fisheries evolve. Photo courtesy of Maine Sea Grant.

So I just think maybe that’s hope. But who’s gonna teach the next generation, who’s going to if we don’t know how it was done in the past, how are we gonna learn our way in the future? And that is being lost at a breakneck speed, the basic knowledge of how to go catch things in a sustainable way. I went to school with a bunch of guys and I thought I was ‘Joe Fisherman’ because I knew how to go fishing, it was my heritage. These guys ended up in the wheelhouse of these 100-foot steel boats, you know why? Because they knew how to turn the damn electronics on and somebody showed them plots on a piece of paper where the fish are. “Go there and go around and you’re gonna make money!” And they did.
I was stubborn and stayed in my little boat. I’m kicking myself now. I’m 60 years old, I want to go into the wheelhouse of one of those draggers and just retire, but I’ve really come to the conclusion that isn’t really where I want to be. I don’t agree with it, even though it’s my family history. My people came from Denmark in 1890s to run steam-powered beam trawlers. So it’s funny how things play themselves out. It’s kind of come full circle from steam-powered beam trawlers to destroying the fishery, back around to what the eldest of the two brothers that came started doing. I’m still fishing off the same beach, the same site that he set on. He fished seven traps, I fish one. Near kills me. And this was the hot spot. That’s what I inherited is the knowledge, that this was the best out of all the sites.
‘Cause pound netting is a site-specific fixed-gear fishery. If the fish come to me, I make some money. If the fish don’t come, sometimes I lose money ‘cause [the crew] ain’t gonna be back tomorrow if they ain’t got any gas in the car, that’s how it is. Why would we do this again? It’s pitiful, it’s desperate sometimes. I’ve been weeks without fish.
A lot of young guys coming in have a family and kids. They don’t want to miss their kid growing up but they don’t want to miss going fishing. They don’t want to go to work for Gulf of Maine Research Institute or NOAA. My son bailed on NOAA. I sent him to school for marine biology and he worked for NOAA as an intern through the whole time and they offered him $67,000 starting pay and he decided to say, “No, I wanna go fishing.” If he took the job with NOAA, he had to give up his fishing rights. You can’t be a fisheries regulator and a fisherman, too. You can’t. You can’t do it. You know? Hard choices. What do you really want to do, where do you really want to go? What is it really all about?

[We’re losing] access. Not just access to the water but access to knowledge. I really believe if the government would just see that if we’re gonna open up access to more quota, at least a portion of that has to be given to innovative, sustainable fisheries. If we had been pound netting this whole time the mackerel wouldn’t be collapsing. It wouldn’t be in the state it is now.
And I’m just heartbroken that there’s very few options in sustainable fisheries. Either you’re constrained by quota or you’re constrained by price and the ability to catch fish or constrained by simple knowledge. I bet you there’s a bunch of people that could teach you how to go out and drag a set of doors and ground cables and pound the hell out of the bottom, not so many that could teach you how to set up a weir or a pound net or how to jig fish or how to trap blackbacks.
I’ve got people asking me [about] cunner fish. But I don’t know how to build a cunner trap. I know stories about how the lobstermen in days gone by when there was no bait, they’d take what little bait they had, put it in a crab trap, go catch a crab, then crush the crab up, put it in the cunner trap then they could haul the cunner trap and they’d have lobster bait. There’s a way to do this, but a lot of it we’ve forgotten or ignored. I’m really excited about what you’re doing here because hopefully there’ll be tidbits of knowledge that get preserved for the future about different ways of looking at things.
Voices of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, an Oral History was made possible by Maine Sea Grant, The First Coast, College of the Atlantic, and the Island Institute. This series is coordinated by Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant.