Award-Winning Photo Essay | The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island

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Once hundreds of trap-fishing companies plied the Rhode Island coast; today only four remain. Photographer Markham Starr spent 40 days documenting a vanishing way of life for the last trap fishermen of Rhode Island.

On the evening of May 20 in Atlanta, Georgia, the City and Regional Magazine Association, which comprises 74 city and regional magazines from across the country, named Markham Starr’s “The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island,” published in Yankee’s July/August 2012 issue, best photo essay of the year. The national competition, coordinated by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, receives comments from more than 80 judges.

Two of Yankee’s photo essays were included among the four finalists. In addition to Markham Starr’s brilliant work, Yankee was also a finalist for “A Feeling for Vermonters” (March/April 2012), featuring Peter Miller’s moving portraits of his Vermont neighbors.

Any award honoring creative work must be subjective, but what cannot be denied is the collective effort that brought this photo essay into our pages. Photo editor Heather Marcus pushed the work of the unknown photographer until it saw print — and she stayed on it for close to a year. Art director Lori Pedrick wove the photos into a compelling narrative on our pages. And Markham Starr trusted us with the work to which he had devoted many months, with no promise of any reward.

Every page of Yankee is the result of everyone’s work and creativity, and for a magazine that lives, in large part, because we visually bring the region to life, being acknowledged this year for doing that better than anyone else in the country is great praise indeed.

The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island

Traps can hold thousands of pounds of fish.

Traps can hold thousands of pounds of fish, and for generations, the work has required strong backs and strong hands, with each tug condensing the catch into an ever-smaller space. “There’s a certain beauty in the work they do,” Starr writes.

Markham Starr

The Amelia Bucolo

The Amelia Bucolo returns to Point Judith after hauling its catch. The use of net traps close to home ports makes this one of the greenest commercial fisheries in the world, using only a fraction of the fuel consumed by deep-sea trawlers. Nearly all trapped fish are either brought to market, bought for bait, or returned to the sea to live another day.

Markham Starr

The Maria Mendonsa

The Maria Mendonsa, based at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, heads out at dawn to check traps. The shape of the catch boat’s hull enables it to carry tons of fish without capsizing. The catch boat tows longboats and skiffs to the trap site and releases them, letting them easily coast or row to the box net. Once onboard, the fish are quickly sorted and iced; within a few hours the boats return to port

Starr, Markham

Maria Mendonsa's pilot house

The view from the Maria Mendonsa‘s pilot house shows a no-frills control center. “Today’s fishermen could feel right at home working a trap from the 1800s,” Starr writes.

Starr, Markham

Amelia Bucolo crew

The crew of the Amelia Bucolo stand in longboats alongside the catch boat to help guide the bull net’s haul from the massive trap. Raised and lowered by a winch, the bull net serves the same function as an aquarium net–but on a scale of hundreds of pounds per load.

Starr, Markham

Ian Campbell tosses bass

Ian Campbell tosses a small striped bass from the sorting table back to sea.

Markham Starr

Scup

Scup (a.k.a. porgy) is one of the trap fisherman’s most valuable catches.

Markham Starr

Markham Starr finds uncommon beauty in the raw work of the men and women who spend their lives working the land or going to sea. He’s a soft-spoken, 53-year-old man with red hair and pale-blue eyes, with only a single high-school photography course to his credit, but he has mastered the art of becoming invisible and letting the stories of his subjects shine through his camera lens.

When Starr has finished, after days and weeks of melting into their lives as if he were simply air, he has captured traditional New England workers at a time when the world is changing around them. Among his large-scale subjects have been the last dairy farmers in his hometown of North Stonington, Connecticut; the final days of the last sardine cannery in Maine; the lives of deep-sea trawlermen who fish out of Point Judith, Rhode Island; and, here, the only fishermen remaining in Rhode Island who tend immense floating traps the way their great-grandfathers did. He called the photo exhibition that evolved from that project In History’s Wake: The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island.

“I’m attracted to people who do these things: so skilled, their knowledge so wide and deep,” Starr says. “Knowing how to fish is probably the easiest thing they do. Similar to farmers, they have to know how to fix their own equipment–because they’re the ones to get themselves out of trouble. They are the Yankee heritage.”

unwelcome catch -- American torpedo

Occasionally the nets deliver unwelcome company. Anthony Parascandolo, a third-generation fisherman and captain of the Christine Roberta, handles an American (a.k.a.. Atlantic) torpedo — a blubbery ray with no commercial value but capable of delivering a powerful electrical jolt — with rubber gloves before tossing it back to sea.

Starr, Markham

Fisherman from the North Star

The three fishermen from the North Star, out of Point Judith, begin hauling, “hardening” the catch into an ever-diminishing space. Trap fishing eliminates the chase; supported by buoys and weighted to the bottom, the traps guide the fish along some 1,500 feet of netting and funnel them into final holding trap — the “box net”– measuring 100 feet long by 70 to 80 feet wide. The owner of the North Starr told Markham Starr that with only his small crew of three, he can catch enough fish in a season to make 60,000 meals.

Starr, Markham

Fish are weighed before they go into shipping cartons.

Fish are weighed before they go into shipping cartons. The scale’s time and -and weather- scarred face fits with these traditional fishermen, nearly all of whom have lived their entire lives on the water.

Markham Starr

The North Star's bull net swings a load of stripers aboard.

The North Star‘s bull net swings a load of stripers aboard. The boat travels only 10 minutes from Point Judith to its trap each day, burning about $800 dollars worth of fuel in an entire season; a deep-sea trawler will double that each day. Trap fishing is clean and efficient; the fish haven’t been dragged or hooked.

Markham Starr

Nylon traps have replaced natural fibers.

Nylon traps have replaced the natural fibers that were prone to decay and breakage. Still, they’re in constant need of repair, with only “oldtimers” possessing the requisite skills and knowledge.

Markham Starr

Sam Willis reattaches the leader net to a trap.

Sam Willis reattaches the leader net to a trap at the eastern end of Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge. The breakwater there protects traps from rough water, but one unexpectedly destructive storm could still destroy the nets and wipe out a summer’s profit.

Markham Starr

The start of another day for the crew of the Maria Mendonsa.

The start of another day for the crew of the Maria Mendonsa. “The future of fishing in New England remains uncertain,” Starr writes. “As more and more regulations pile upon the fisheries in the few remaining ports left on the Eastern Seaboard, fishermen leave the work of generations and head inland in search of a living with a more certain future. These are the types of men and women who built our country. We will all share in the loss when they no longer work our coastline… Perhaps there is more to the end of this tradition than we have considered, and hopefully these images will bring a fuller appreciation of what we stand to lose.”

Starr, Markham

Starr’s photos, and the audio recordings he makes of his subjects, stitch generations past to those who carry on. He knows that one day, when the last floating trap is taken ashore, when the men you see on these pages have grown old–for the average age of a trap fisherman is 55–what will be handed down after lifetimes of setting and hauling, of feeding neighbors and strangers, may be only stories and photos. “I see history disappearing,” Starr says. But he doesn’t wring his hands. Instead, he carries his two Nikons, stuffs his pockets with batteries and memory cards, and finds the history happening right now, in front of him.

When he went to sea with the trawlers, Starr suffered dreadful seasickness–but he shot thousands of images. One day in Point Judith, he noticed some traps and the curious-looking longboats, and he had to know more: “With the fishermen, I say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I want to do.’ They take me at my word. They say, ‘Okay, just show up and stay out of the way.’ I stay out of the way. And I know not to stand in stupid places. And I never ask anyone to pose. They’re a great group to work with.”

When Starr’s work is done, he makes a point to take his prints to the fishermen. Proudly displayed on their walls are photos of the boats of their fathers and uncles, and their grandfathers before them, and beside them go the new ones: past and present bonded by sea and fish and work, fastened there by Markham Starr.

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