These are uncertain times for Newport’s fishing industry. Will the tide be turning?
By Brennan Cluff
“Different? How are things different? Just look at it.”
Gazing out over the water toward downtown Newport from a dock on Long Wharf, Denny Ingram, the burly captain of the Blue Moon, is answering my question with a question.
“Nothing’s the way it used to be. Nothing.”
We’re standing on the last remaining pier dedicated to the city’s commercial fishing industry. The view is crowded with pleasure boats, mid-rise condos and high-end hotels. When Ingram started fishing nearly 40 years ago, the scene was quite different. The city had an established and bustling working waterfront with bait shops, fueling stations, and a bunch of places to sell that day’s catch.
Today, all of the businesses serving the commercial fishing industry have evaporated. You can’t even get ice locally. “We pooled our money and bought a commercial ice machine, made just for our needs, and we can’t even get the inspectors to sign off on it so we can turn the thing on,” Ingram says. As we shoot the breeze, a few lobster and gill net boats bob defiantly in place, roped to pilings, poised for another voyage.
These are interesting times for the local brotherhood of people who make their living on the water.
Historically, Newport’s natural harbor, nearby ocean and neighboring Narragansett Bay all made for hospitable waters. They teemed with mackerel, fluke, tuna, haddock, flounder and perch. The harbor itself accommodated 150 wharves, making affordable local dockage easy to come by. Even as recently as the mid-1900s, Newport was a commercial fishing epicenter on a par with New Bedford, which is now the country’s most profitable fishing port.
“When we first started fishing, Newport Harbor from south to north was filled with busy port activity for us.” says David Spencer, a member of the Commercial Fisheries
“Newport should be one of the sport fishing capitals
of the world,” Rob Taylor says.
Research Foundation. Spencer has been lobstering locally on his boat, the Nathaniel Lee, since 1973. “There were freezers and boats and fuel and a bunch of places to sell our catch. It wasn’t so touristy, so we could make it work.”
And work they did, until Newport became one of the premier tourist destinations in the country. Since that time, tourism, and the money it brings in, has exerted tremendous pressure for stakeholders to cash in on even the smallest sections of Newport’s waterfront. A fleet of aging trawlers couldn’t possibly pay the kind of money that dock owners get from the super-elite, million-dollar-plus pleasure boats that find their way here. “How can we possibly compete?” Ingram asks.
It’s safe to say that commercial fishing today has changed in every conceivable way. Newport’s importance as a fisheries hub has shrunken dramatically in the last half century, both literally and economically. Since 2011, Newport fisherman fishery landings have decreased almost 70 percent. Unlike New Bedford, Newport’s fishing industry does not provide much economic support to the city. Today, there are around a dozen and a half trawlers, all confined to the state-owned Long Wharf (also called Pier 9).
“We wouldn’t even have this small piece of the waterfront if a group of lawyers hadn’t stepped in with a bridge loan on the real estate,” says Spencer. “If it weren’t for that loan, this land would have been sold right from under us. We know there was an offer on the table.” That loan allowed the commercial fishermen to buy enough time for the State of Rhode Island to purchase that waterfront parcel on their behalf, with the intention of retaining it exclusively for commercial fishing.
While onshore matters have stabilized somewhat, offshore is a different story. Construction of a massive wind farm is underway, throwing another obstacle in the fishing industry’s path. “The fish don’t like it at all,” says Ingram. “That’s happening right out where we like to be, and you can go out there and there’s nothing. That’s definitely going to make things complicated. Even the ground tests they’re doing are disturbing the stocks.”
Declines in fish stocks have also occurred due to changes in the environment, including changing water temperatures, predation and pollution. Since 1898, overall fish yields have decreased by an astonishing 81 percent. Changes in wild shellfish include the disappearance of soft-shell clams, oysters and scallops, all of which were replaced by quahogs.
Graying of the Fleet
Spencer and Ingram are integral to the community of local fishermen, whose hard work and independent spirit helped to create a proud and successful tradition. Today, though, many of those once-proud fishermen
are nearing retirement, and there are few, if any, of the younger generation willing to step up and take their place.
“Nobody really has statistics,” says Sarah Schumann, a commercial fisherman and owner/principal of Shining Seas Fishery Consulting. “But you hear a lot of people express the view that there is a ‘graying of the fleet’ — a sharp increase in the average age of commercial fishermen nationwide.”
Today, Ingram and Spencer are among the last of the fishermen who enjoyed the boom time of the 1980s, when they were able to take advantage of a 200-mile expansion of federally approved fishing waters. “For the longest time, it was a really good business,” says Ingram. “It was hard work, but it was worth it, especially if you wanted to be your own boss
and make your own hours. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Adds Spencer, “For whatever reason, the younger generations don’t want to do this kind of work. I understand that times have changed, but there’s still a real opportunity out there to make a good living.”
Schumann says that fishermen in Newport have had to do everything they can just to hang in there. “There’s so much competition for waterfront space, it just makes it difficult to have a working waterfront in that location, like it used to be.”
All of the dealers — legendary places like Anthony’s on Spring Wharf, where fishermen would sell their catch — are gone. Time was the fishermen could come in, unload their haul, get paid, clean up, and live to fish another day. No longer. “The dealers all disappeared,” says Spencer, “so we needed a solution, an outlet for the guys to sell their catch.”
Introducing the Newport Lobster Shack, a modest outbuilding where the local boats can unload their catch. It opened in 2010 after the Department of Environmental Management put a stop to individual off-the-boat lobster and crab sales in Newport. Every captain who berths a boat on the pier is a member of the co-op and has a vote in any of the shack’s business decisions.
Local support for the establishment — where you can get a killer lobster roll, among other things — has been overwhelming. “If it weren’t for the Lobster Shack, I don’t know if they would be there anymore,” says Schumann, referring to the fishing fleet. “From what many of them have told me, that’s really been their lifeline. During COVID, especially, when people were looking for local provisions, it really made a big difference.”
Spencer agrees. “The Shack is an anchor that helps to keep the commercial fishing fleet in Newport,” he says. “It’s really integrated the fishing community into the city, into the state. We’ve become part of the tourist trade here.”
Since 1898, overall fish yields have decreased by an astonishing 81%
“Once you start talking about commercial fishing as a ‘dying industry,’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Fishing for Answers
Contrary to what all of this sounds like — that the walls are closing in on commercial fishing — there are actually reasons for optimism. “In a lot of ways, fisheries are doing better than they ever have before,” says Schumann. “The management of those fisheries has reached an even keel finally, after a few turbulent decades, and the relationship between the fishermen and DEM has also stabilized and become much more productive.”
Beyond the management aspects, there are also viable alternative pursuits that allow those commercially minded fishermen to make a living. Many turn to chartering their boats for day-tripping fishermen. “Consumers are more aware of the world they live in,” says Brian Combra, a fisherman from Tiverton who’s been on the water since he was a young kid. “They’re more into climate, conservation, knowing where your food is coming from. A lot of people want to catch fish, but they also want to do it the right way, experience the nature without killing it. The recreational side of it is such a big business.”
As captain of Newport Fishing Charters, Rob Taylor knows that fact pretty well. He runs one of Newport’s most successful charter enterprises. A biology graduate from Roger Williams, Taylor has done his share of commercial fishing, but now shares his passion and gift for sport fishing with paying customers. “Newport should be one of the sport fishing capitals of the world,” he says. A billowy beard, part of his persona, belies the 39-year-old’s youth and hides a confident smile. “You can fish anywhere out of
Newport, Block Island, the Vineyard. I love it,” Taylor says. His enthusiasm is backed by a busy calendar. He’s often booked through the summer, two trips a day, and he’s even booked solid this October–December.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love commercial fishing,” Taylor says. “But the price of seafood is so cheap right now, I find that it’s really hard work for not a lot of money. I’d rather catch a bunch of fish with people and watch them smile.”
Combra recently decided to get off the water full time and buy into Ken’s Bait Shop in Middletown. “I saw the writing on the wall,” he says. “In general, I see commercial fishing as a dying industry. When you walk down the docks, you don’t see young guys running boats. If they do, their ambition is to go offshore where they can make more money.”
Combra grew up fishing with gill nets and a few lobster pots. “I didn’t have any aspirations of getting rich, but I did like the lifestyle,” he admits. “Then this offer came along at the bait shop and it was a chance for me to change things up and be a little more secure.”
Turning the Tide
As the world turns, many industries have succumbed to great change, and commercial fishing, like farming, is no exception. Lately, though, farming has experienced a resurgence, as interest in local food sourcing has exploded. Perhaps this will be the case with fishing, too. But it could all be in how it’s messaged.
“Once you start talking about commercial fishing as a ‘dying industry,’” says Schumann, “it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and a little scarier for a young person to invest in it, even if they desperately want to do it or if it’s been the family business.”
That said, it’s not enough to commit to it. The fishing infrastructure needs to be in place in order for it to make sense. Right now, in Newport, it’s not. “Even though we’re all extremely independent people,” Schumann says, referring to her own commercial fishing business, “nobody can do it alone. You need a functioning dock space, a place to sell your catch, a gear supply store, a fuel supply. You need all of those things. It’s one of the reasons why younger people aren’t getting involved.”
“The next generation isn’t picking up on it,” he says. “I had a couple of kids last season who just had trouble getting out of bed. I leave at 5 a.m. and they had a really hard time getting up.” As he talks, he’s rolling a blue plastic barrel off his truck and into a neat row. “To me, it’s never felt like a job, and you get paid at the end of it. I’ve had a helluva time,” he says, grabbing another barrel. “I’m on the back nine, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”