Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Dogfish Days

Sometimes you get to experience a weirdo coincidence. I turned on the TV recently and viewed a show about animals that attack humans. This particular episode was about manta rays and people. Now, rays (which we call skates) don’t go after folks at all. They just have good self-defense. It must have been an old show because they said skates don’t generally kill folks. Well, tell that to crocodile hunters, will ya? I don’t think Steve Irwin got the message.

They got these barbs on their back (four, to be exact) that can stick you but good. They’re serrated barbs — easy goin’ in, hard to extract, like old Indian arrowheads. Now, what the boob tube said is quite correct: never attempt to extract on your own! (Which is most likely what the croc hunter instinctively tried. I wish he’d seen the show. I never really cared for the croc guy myself, but my pal Tyler sure did. I think his wife had something for him also.)

Now, you’re like, What’s this leading up to? That’s what folks in this game call a lead-in. See, skates are in the same family as sharks, believe it or not. They even have a barb like a skate does that may not be deadly, but I did have one somehow stab me under my fingernail. Pain. Oh boy, pain. If I was the swearing type, bet I’d say a few things. It was pain I’ll never forget. After a few treatments, the doc’s like, “If these pills don’t kick in, we’ll be calling you Lefty.” Well, thank god for modern medicine.

How I got stuck was unloading a truck full of dogfish. I was running the biggest dogfish factory in Maine. There were four processing plants in Portland and one in Knox County someplace. We were getting them trucked up all the way from Carolina. They’d migrate up and down the coast. At the time, no other states would take dogfish in. I guess Maine’s got that thing about it that says we’ll do anything no one else would even think of. Hell, it’s 1,400 miles to North Carolina. You realize how many towns them semis went past to bring their fish here?

Dogfish are a kind of shark, albeit a small one, like a sand shark. They’re closely related to skates. How they urinate is through their bodies. Makes them the most rotten, stinkiest, godforsaken species of fish you’ll ever get to see. If the wind was right, I could know if the fish were in by the odor, and I lived on Spring Street! Some days I’d get to work to find two trucks waiting for me to unload, both of ’em filled to the brim — about 40,000 pounds each.

It was all about the money — lots of dough. We’d go in the bank and folks would let us go first just to get us away. We’d stink like you would not fucking believe, but we’d be cashing the biggest checks in the whole bank. Wouldn’t even need ID. Nope, the smell was good ID.

You’re probably sayin’, Why ain’t you still doing it if it’s such good dough? Well, I’ll tell ya: they’re gone.

You know, I got started in the fish business far too many years ago. Started on the first lousy job I could get, which was a candling table. Fish come by with a bright light underneath them and I’d stand there with a pair of tweezers and dig out the worms. Sorry if’n it ruins your next fish dinner. We’d get most of ’em, though (hopefully).

Then I moved my way up through the fish biz till I’d done ’bout every job there was. Christ, I salted cod, cut bait, sold lobsters to Europe — you name it. I mostly did dogs, though, and boy do I wish we still had them around.

See, Portland really was a seaport at one time. Why, sometimes we even had dogfish boats waiting to be unloaded right around the clock — nine, ten at a time. Ice dealers would love it — you gotta keep ’em cold, doncha know? There was no such thing as unemployment in those days. You want to work? Hell, get up in the morning and start at one end of Commercial Street and work your way down. Can’t stand fish? Well, there’s an egg place over there. No? Well, there’s two veggie joints over there, couple of beer joints if you’re real fussy. All of it supported, though, by fish.

Then came the bad news for the ocean, which means for us. Do you realize that at one time fully 10 percent of the global captains of ships could call Maine home? Christ almighty, Alaskan fishing boats used to advertise in Maine newspapers, and if you had the experience and the desire, hell, they’d pay your way to get there.

Dogfish weren’t the only darn fish. It seemed like everyone was waiting to offload or take on bait or for Cap to wake up. Now it’s a goddamn ghost town down there. The only working waterfront we got is some out-of-state tourist bars. The Old Port — what a fucking laugh.

I’ll explain for ya why the fish are gone. Something called hypoxia. It’s all a huge balancing act, and basically the amount of oxygen is decreasing and carbon dioxide is increasing. It’s like dominoes — you knock one down, presto, it starts the whole thing rolling. Too much carbon dioxide makes something called carbonic acid, which in turn affects other things — coral reefs, for one, which fish thrive on. And it’s also connected to the fishies’ sperm counts — makes it hard for them to reproduce. You realize that one fish might produce half a million eggs? And believe it or not, only two might actually grow into adults. Those numbers are hard to fuck with. Don’t take too long to wipe out a whole species.

Now, I dig it that we’ve been actually behaving much better in curbing pollution and such. However, the damage is still being done. These dominoes won’t stop falling over. You know, the brainiacs say this happened once already — climate change, that is. The best they can estimate is that it took two-to-ten million years to recuperate. Are you folks ready? ’Cause I believe we are really watching the total demise of the oceans’ fish.

I don’t know any solution myself, except I do know we best do better. That means no pollution. None. More accent on the science of fixing things. I realize we’ll never go back to the days of trying to drive down Commercial Street and getting stuck waiting for a forklift or a train or you-name-it. We’ve got to make things better in the ocean for our own survival. I think we’ve gone that far. It’s almost too late.