A Century of Progress and Innovation:
The New Bedford Fishing Fleet
Modern commercial fishing in New Bedford begins around 1900, during the final chapter of the city’s famed whaling industry. It starts humbly, influenced by the other local fleets like Provincetown.
Early 1900’s: Cape Cod fishermen have a fleet of small flounder draggers that tow their small, primitive nets on the sandy bottom. In the warmer months these fishermen often switch their gear to target migratory fish seining and netting for mackerel or harpooning swordfish.
1900-1905: Edgartown fishermen begin enlarging their traditional catboat designs and add bowsprits. These larger vessels engage in southern mackerel fisheries off Virginia in the spring. When swordfish begin migrating north in the summer, they use their bowsprits as pulpits to harpoon swordfish between Southern Shoals Lightship and Georges Bank.
1905: The SPRAY, launched for Boston’s Bay State Trawling Company is the first otter trawler in the United States.
New Bedford’s early fishing fleet consists of small sloops and catboats, about 25-30 feet long. They originally work short trips mackerel seining, swordfishing or hand-lining for groundfish. The catboats, designed to be worked from the cockpit, are also used for bay scalloping.
Early New Bedford fishing vessels include large catboats like HESTER, Captain Joe Marshall Silveira and NATALIE, owned by Frank Butler. VIKING, a schooner-rigged “well smack” belonging to Captain John Sater brings live codfish to Fulton market in New York most of the year and goes swordfishing in the summer.
1909: Captain Dan Mullins begins a series of innovations for which he will later be known as the father of modern fishing in New Bedford. He replaces his catboat DASHING WAVE with the Maine-built sloop EDNA J. MORSE. With a small auxiliary engine, Mullins uses the MORSE as a “flounder dragger.” Originally Mullins uses a beam trawl, where a wooden beam holds the mouth of the net open. This is the first step in the beginning of New Bedford’s dragging fleet.
1910: Captain Mullins experiments with a primitive otter trawl on the MORSE. He first learns the technique of using doors instead of a beam from Long Island Fishermen while fishing off Montauk, New York.
1910: Chester F. Hathaway establishes a machinery company at Elm and Water Streets in New Bedford. Although the company originally serviced automobiles, Captain Dan Mullins has Hathaway develop much of his early trawl gear.
On the eve of World War I, New Bedford’s fleet of small vessels begins growing in size. The fleet transitions from small catboats, which are fished from the cockpit, to larger vessels with a full working deck.
Dan Mullins’ ANNA is considered the first “decked schooner boat” built for New Bedford. This vessel is quickly followed by the HELEN MURLEY. Besides Captain Mullins, other “captain-owners” include Captains Frank Lynch, John Murley, Doucette, Joe Dutra and Manuel Avila.
1914: The opening of the Cape Cod Canal allows easier access to the Boston market for New Bedford’s growing fleet. During these early years, New Bedford is not a major landings port. Much of the fish caught by New Bedford fishermen is sold in Boston or at New York’s Fulton Fish Market. However this will change as the fleet and its prosperity grow.
1914-1918: During World War I, the North Atlantic fishing fleet is subjected to raids by German submarines. New Bedford’s fleet, still in its infancy, is not spared. Some of their swordfishermen including Bob Jackson and Frank Lynch have their vessels attacked by U-Boats.
1917: The HELEN MURLEY is lost with all hands near the South Shoal Lightship during the August Gale of 1917.
Immediately after the war, New Bedford’s fishermen begin looking toward the future. Unlike other ports with a long tradition of large, all-sail fishing fleets, New Bedford is quick to utilize the latest innovations in machinery and fishing technology.
1919: Captain Dan Mullins has an 81 foot vessel built by Wilbur Morse in Thomaston Maine. Named the MARY, this vessel is the first of what would later be known as an Eastern-rig dragger. This schooner-dragger is powered by a small diesel engine, and the first of its type to use the gear and configuration that will be adopted by the entire New England fleet over the next few decades. MARY is the first small vessel to otter trawl using gallous (also spelled gallows) frames: large metal brackets mounted along the starboard rail used in raising and lowering the otter doors and net. Another first by the MARY is the use of a two-headed winch, precursor to the larger drum winches the dragging fleet adopts in the 1920’s.
1919: Chester F. Hathaway, now in business as Hathaway Machinery Company, begins producing deck equipment and winches for fishing vessels like MARY. Hathaway quickly becomes an early leader in this field and helps other New Bedford fishermen convert to otter trawling.
The 1920’s see both endings and beginnings in New Bedford. The whaling industry comes to a close with the final voyage of the schooner JOHN R. MANTA. However it is also the start of an expansion of the fishing fleet that continues into the 1940’s.
1920: Hathaway Machinery installs the first purpose-built winch for a dragger on the MARY.
1921: Captain Mullins takes the MARY to Georges Bank for summer gray sole (witch flounder), marking the first “offshore” dragging trip.
Captains William Hayes, Thomas Keeping, Frederick Nicodemisen, Mike Smith, Ambrose Smith, Sandy Smith, J.T. Fennessy, and Olaf Anderson all play key roles in this period of fleet expansion.
1924: Captain Mullins’ new vessel, the MARY R. MULLINS, is the first “baby trawler” at 84 feet with a capacity of 90,000 lbs. Designed for full-time offshore dragging she is the first Eastern-rig dragger with gallous frames on both sides.
1925-26: Approximately 100 vessels equipped with trawl gear are fishing in New England waters.
Late 1920’s: Shore-side infrastructure is catching up to the fleet expansion. Dan Mullins and Captain Frank Parsons create the Acushnet Fish Corporation. They are followed shortly by the Sea View Fish Company, and Joseph Goulart Fish Company.
L.S. Eldredge & Son under the command of Linus Eldredge helps turn New Bedford into a major port by shipping fish nationwide. The creation of the General Ice and Cold Storage Company further accelerates New Bedford’s growth as a fish processing port.
At the start of the 1930’s New Bedford’s fleet and its landings are growing fast. Besides the usual landings of flounder and groundfish, sea scallops are now being harvested. This is a fairly new fishery and New Bedford’s fleet, located relatively close to the rich George’s Bank scallop beds, is poised to corner the market early on.
1931: “Landings of all kinds of fish are on the increase in New Bedford. Approximately one-half of the total amount of scallops caught in Massachusetts waters passes through New Bedford, also a large portion of the swordfish caught off the Southern shore is brought to this port and finds a ready market.” – Atlantic Fisherman Magazine August 1931
1931: Department of Commerce completes a thorough survey of Georges Bank, producing a new edition of its nautical chart, an invaluable resource for the fleet.
1934: Out of the ten big scallop draggers fishing on George’s Bank, seven are from New Bedford.
1934: WPA constructs the Wharfinger Building, using mostly recycled building materials
1934: The fishing schooner MARY, considered the first modern dragger is lost with eight men aboard.
Mid-1930’s: Western-rig style draggers begin appearing in the New Bedford fleet. New technology allows for a design where the pilothouse can be set in the bow of the vessel. Now the crew can work the deck with a little more protection. Captain Joseph Dutra’s JOHN & BILLY is one of New Bedford’s early Western-rig vessels.
The New Bedford scallop and groundfish fleets continue to expand, now consisting of 100 vessels. New additions of wooden draggers and scallopers are built chiefly in Fairhaven shipyards like Casey’s, Pierce & Kilburn and Palmer Scott & Company. However many vessels are also built in well-established shipyards of Maine.
1938: As fish plants and waterfront infrastructure improve, so does the organization of the captains and owners. The Seafood Producers Association is created to promote New Bedford as a major fishing center. The same year, labor is organized under the New Bedford Fishermen’s Union and the Fish Lumper’s Union.
1938: The infamous hurricane of September 1938 leaves New Bedford under eight feet of water. As many as two-thirds of all vessels at anchor in the harbor sink.
Late-1930’s: New Bedford is the center of the growing sea scallop fishery. 95% of the scalloping fleet lands their catch in New Bedford. New Bedford vessels are now landing most of their catch at home instead of other ports.
1941: New Bedford’s Seafood Producers’ Association and the Atlantic Fishermen’s Union form the New Bedford Fish Auction, located at the Wharfinger Building. It is a timed auction, where the entire unloaded catch of a vessel is sold to the highest bidder by the ending bell.
World War II: With U-Boats patrolling the coast, and wartime restrictions on supplies, many New Bedford vessels are tied up or can only make short trips. Captain John Aanensen’s scalloper FRIARS, is shot at by a German sub. Several of the larger New Bedford vessels are taken by the Navy and converted for use as coastal minesweepers and patrol vessels. Owners receive a small stipend for use of their vessels and many are returned after the war. Captain John Murley alone donates four of his fishing vessels for the war effort, two are returned.
1945: New Bedford’s fleet grows to 209 fishing vessels, bringing in a catch of over 100 million pounds. Many of the New Bedford vessels built after WWII, are designed by noted vessel designer Albert Condon, who moves to Fairhaven during this time. Condon specializes in rugged Eastern-rig designs that are known as the “New Bedford” style dragger. Mystic Seaport’s ROANN is a surviving example of Condon’s designs.
1946: The first steel fishing vessels in the New Bedford fleet arrive. The CAROLE-JUNE and MABEL-MAE sister ships of 93 feet are built for Elmer Jacobsen and John Abrams by Electric Boat Company in Groton, CT.
Late 1940’s: Scallop landings continue to increase after WWII with 80% of the national catch brought into New Bedford.
1949: 44 million pounds of industrial (not for human consumption) fish such as red hake, whiting and menhaden (pogy) are landed in New Bedford. These fish are are used to make fish meal and oil.
Early 1960’s: Gunner Gundersen, a Norwegian immigrant ushers in the use of hydraulic power in the New Bedford fleet.
1963: F/V NARRAGANSETT is designed and built by Luther Blount in Warren, Rhode Island. This is the first American stern-trawler, using a net reel to haul in the catch. The stern trawler is an attempt to make the American fleets more competitive in the face of the large foreign factory ships on George’s Bank.
1964: Warren Blount, of Blount Marine sells the NARRAGANSETT to Jacob “Jack” Jacobsen of Fairhaven. It is Jacobsen who perfects the techniques of stern trawling by creating the “A-frame” gantry for the net reel.
Mid-1960’s: 95% of all scallops landed come into New Bedford. Total landings for the port in 1965 top 135 million pounds and are valued at over $18 million. Scallop landings are over 10 million pounds, bringing in over $7 million. Yellowtail flounder amounts to over 59 million pounds, worth nearly $6 million.
1966: Completion of the hurricane barrier in New Bedford harbor. The barrier ensures that the New Bedford waterfront and fleet will not have to repeat the level of destruction wrought by the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954.
1966: The New Bedford scallop fleet has about 60 vessels at this time. However, the George’s Bank scallop beds are showing signs of depletion.
Mid to Late 1960’s: Controversy begins on the New Bedford waterfront. It is a time that is known locally as “the aggravation.” The fishermen accuse the lumpers, fish buyers and processors of giving short weight on boxes of fish. The fishermen also complain about the indiscriminate stealing of fish during the unloading of the catch. This period is described by William Finn in his book “The Dragger.”
1968: Scallop landings and prices are on the decline. Four large New Bedford scallopers leave for Alaska. The New Bedford Scallop Festival is re-named the New Bedford Seafood Festival as scallops decline and yellowtail flounder landings increase.
1968: Roy Enoksen establishes Nordic Fisheries with the purchase of his first scalloper, F/V SEA TREK.
Early 1970’s: New Bedford’s scallop fishery continues to decline. The scallop fleet is reduced to 45 vessels. Even with diminished landings, the price of scallops stays low. Imported scallops from Canada are seen as the reason for the continuing low scallop prices.
1971: 13 scallop boats convert to dragging for yellowtail flounder.
1974: Flounder, especially yellowtail, continue to take the place of scallop landings. New Bedford lands 25% of flounder caught nationwide.
Mid-1970’s: Scallop landings and prices begin to improve for the New Bedford fleet. This is in part due to many vessels dredging off the mid-Atlantic states instead of George’s Bank.
Mid-1970’s: Thomas Ferreira establishes F&B Rubberized, which utilizes die-cut rubber tires to create chafing and rolling gear for the fleet.
1975: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reports 133 foreign vessels fishing on George’s Bank
1976: The New Bedford groundfish fleet, like the rest of New England, are dealing with the realities of diminishing stocks. The vessels start to bring in other, previously underutilized species to compensate.
“Fish that would have been thrown overboard a few years ago, like monktail, catfish and sand dabs, are now part of the commercial haul.” -Morning Record: 2/11/76
“You used to come back with 50-70-100,000 pound of Haddock’ Says Lloyd Artis ‘Now you’re lucky if you see 5,000 in a trip.” –Spokesman-Review: 2/15/76
1976: Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act establishes the 200 mile limit. By the next year the foreign factory fleets are pushed out of American waters. However for local fishermen, much of the damage has already been done.
1977: NAVIGATOR, a 73 foot scalloper on a ten day trip goes down with her captain, Norman R. Lepire and a crew of 12. It is the biggest loss of life for a New Bedford vessel in the City’s history.
Late 1970’s: National Marine Fisheries Service oversees the Fishing Vessel Obligation Guarantee Program. The federal program helps build up the local fleet in the wake of the 200 mile limit by securing loans for new vessels to commercial fishermen.
1978: Roy Enoksen of Nordic Fisheries and Frank O’Hara of the O’Hara Corporation partner to create Eastern Fisheries.
1979: Yellowtail flounder, a staple of New Bedford fishing is on the decline. Trip limits are now being enforced, including a two month ban on yellowtail fishing in February.
Early 1980’s: George’s Bank scallop beds begin to rebound.
1980: Bendiksen Fisheries launches the 98′ VIKING, a combination scalloper-dragger and the first of its type.
1982: Implementation of the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan.
1982: Walter and Wayne Bruce develop and patent anti-chafing gear known as “cookies” for scallop dredges (US patent #434972, 9/21/1982). They are usually made from old vehicle tires and prevent damage to the chain bag as it scours the bottom.
1984: New Bedford is the number one fishing port in the nation, by value of landings.
1984: The “Hague Line” is created by the World Court, splitting George’s Bank into Canadian and American areas, creating the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The ruling cuts off access to the Northeast peak for American fishermen. This area is well-known for large scallop beds and as a prime fishing ground for the swordfish fleet.
Mid-1980’s: Reidar Bendiksen, a Norwegian immigrant establishes Reidar’s Trawl-Scallop Gear and Marine Supply. A retired fisherman, many of his innovations are adopted by the rest of the fleet.
1985: A bitter strike between boat owners and the New Bedford Fishermen’s Union threatens the very existence of the city’s fishing industry. With landings down and rising operating costs, tensions build between fishermen and owners over shares of the catch, paying of trip expenses, hiring practices and the fishermen’s pension fund. The strike involves over 700 New Bedford fishermen and about 100 vessels. Both union and non-union fishermen form picket lines, some non-union vessels fish short-handed and do business in other ports.
1986: As the strike drags on, the community takes sides but much of the fleet is fishing again by late February 1986. Still a sore subject among fishermen, this strife leads to the end of organized labor in the New Bedford fishing fleet. It also plays a role in the closing of the New Bedford Fish Auction at the Wharfinger Building.
1986: COLUMBIA, an Eastern-rig scalloper, is the last wooden vessel built for the New Bedford fleet.
1986: Hathaway Machinery Company, a provider of winches and other fishing gear since 1910, shuts down after a controversial injury lawsuit and factory fire.
1986: Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan is enacted to reduce fish mortality primarily through gear restrictions and regulation of mesh size.
Late 1980’s: After the demise of the New Bedford Fish Auction, the New Bedford Fish Lumper’s Union fills the gap by running an outdoor fish auction.
Early 1990’s: Thanks to its scallop fleet, New Bedford is the leading fishing port in the nation in total dollar value. The fleet numbers over 300 vessels, mostly scallopers and draggers but also crab and lobster boats, longline swordfishermen and gill netters.
1994: Whaling City Seafood Display Auction is created by brothers Richard and Raymond Canastra. Unlike the original New Bedford Auction, this one is a European style display auction. The catch is unloaded, culled, and on display for prospective buyers.
1994: Amendment 4 to the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan imposes major changes in scallop management, including days-at-sea (DAS) limits, new gear regulations to reduce by-catch, a vessel monitoring system and a change in how scallop permits are allocated.
Mid-1990’s: New Bedford’s fleet, like the rest of New England is burdened by Amendment 5 of the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan. Two large areas of Georges Bank and the Nantucket Lightship area are closed to both the groundfish and scallop fleet. New regulations enforce net mesh sizes, days-at-sea (DAS) and end the use of combination scallop-dragger vessels.
1996: The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 makes major revisions to the original Magnuson Act. Now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it enforces restrictions to prevent overfishing and to rebuild stocks. It adds and revises national standards on vessel safety, fishing communities, and incidental by-catch. It also imposes improved fishery monitoring, enhanced research and identification of essential fish habitat, and analysis of fishing capacity.
1996-97: A federal fleet buyback program is implemented to reduce the number of fishing vessels and permits in New England waters. NARRAGANSETT, America’s first stern trawler, is scrapped through this program.
1997: Only 8.6 million pounds of groundfish are landed in New Bedford, valued at just over $10 million.
1998: Amendment 7 to the Scallop FMP changes the definition overfishing, the days-at-sea (DAS) schedule and lowers scallop mortality targets. The Mid-Atlantic scallop beds of Hudson Canyon and the Virginia/North Carolina Areas are closed to scallopers.
1998: New Bedford’s lucrative scallop fishery hits a 25 year low, with annual landings valued at $30 million.
1999: Framework Adjustment 11 to the Scallop FMP allows a limited number of scallopers to dredge in the closed section of Georges Bank (Closed Area II). This successful experiment leads to a rotational system that closes areas and reopens them several years later to prevent overfishing and optimize yield.
Early 2000’s: The New England fishing fleet sees significant reductions under NOAA’s vessel and permit buyback programs. This primarily affects New Bedford’s dragging fleet, with 19 vessels either scrapped or sunk.
2001: Sea Scallops are included in the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction.
2002: New Bedford’s offshore fleet numbers 108 scallopers and 96 draggers.
2002: Fishermen discover that the R/V ALBATROSS IV, the scientific survey vessel of the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) set its net incorrectly. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) admits that over the previous two years they incorrectly set out their survey trawl net. The cables (warps) connecting the otter doors to the net were not equal length, leading to inaccurate fish assessments. A group of fishermen also discover further problems with the way the research vessel tows this net. To the further ire of fishermen, even after admitting these errors, NMFS claims they had no impact on stock assessments. Fishermen and local media dub this fiasco as “Trawl-Gate” as it drives a deeper wedge between commercial fishermen and policy makers.
2004 Amendment 13 of Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan changes the DAS program, makes revisions to trip limits for cod and yellowtail flounder, changes in gear restrictions, including minimum mesh sizes and gillnet limits and modifications to Vessel Monitoring System requirements. Amendment 10 to the Scallop FMP formally introduces rotational area management of the scallop beds.
Working Waterfront Festival debuts
Mid-2000’s: As much of the New England fishing economy erodes away, New Bedford remains a full-service port for fishermen.
“New Bedford has an estimated 75 processors, several dozen gear shops and four fuel companies. In addition there are two shipyards, two ice plants, four settlement houses and ten engine shops. It is estimated that around 300 businesses in the New Bedford region are directly involved with the fishing industry.” -New Bedford’s Commercial Fishing Infrastructure Report 2004
2005: Controversy continues as New Bedford fishermen question the stock assessment of yellowtail flounder.
2006: As restrictions continue to hamper the groundfish fleet, New Bedford’s scallop landings are keeping the port on top. New Bedford’s total landings amount to 169.9 million pounds valued at $281.2 million.
2007: The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 establishes annual catch limits and paves the way for individual fishing quotas, also known as IFQ’s or catch shares.
2008: Amendment 11 to the Scallop FMP establishes a new management program for the general category scallop fishery. This includes a limited access program using IFQs for general category vessels and specific allocations for general category fisheries.
2010: Amendment 16 to the Multispecies FMP implements “catch shares” for most of the groundfish fleet. Vessels not fishing in sectors fish in the “common pool” under a modified Days-at-Sea (DAS) program.
2011: New Bedford scallopers are allowed into Closed Areas I and II on Georges Bank with allotments of 18,000 lbs per vessel.
2011: Ocean’s Fleet is formed from the merger of Fleet Fisheries and Oceans Alive Scallops, creating one of the largest producers of Atlantic sea scallops in the nation.
2012: New Bedford remains a full-service port with a total of 148 shore side businesses servicing the fishing industry.
2013: New Bedford marks its 15th year as the nation’s most valuable fishing port with landings worth $379 million. However landings of groundfish decline by 30%.
2013: New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center established.
2016: “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in conjunction with the New England Fishery Management Council, institutes a 62-percent reduction in the allowable catch for Georges Bank cod this year, in quotas that took effect May 1.”
“Former New Bedford Mayor John Bullard, now regional administrator for NOAA fisheries, says the new regulations create “about a 95 percent cut” since 2012 in catch limits for Georges Bank cod, a key species for New Bedford’s fishing industry.”
2016: In a ribbon cutting ceremony, the Fishing Heritage Center opens doors to the public at 38 Bethel Street on June 25th.
2017: The Working Waterfront Festival returns to Steamship Pier. Tropical Storm Jose forces the fleet to stay in the harbor thereby, canceling the scallop shucking contest.
2017: New Bedford ranks as highest value port for the 18th consecutive year, landing 111 million pounds of seafood (ranked 13th highest volume) for a whopping value of $389 million.
2017: Northeast Fishing Sector IX, a major New Bedford Sector with 22 groundfish permits, is shut down by National Marine Fisheries Service. Eighty New Bedford fishermen are forced out of work.
2018: 55 vessels join Sector VII for the 2018-19 fishing season in order to lease their groundfish quota since they are not permitted to fish.
2018: New Bedford’s reign as the most valuable port in the country continues as the city lands 114 million pounds of seafood at a value of $431 million dollars.
2019: F/V Leonardo, a 56 foot scalloper, capsizes in a storm off of Martha’s Vineyard. The Coast Guard rescues one crew member; the other three fishermen on board are presumed lost at sea.
2020: F/V Viking Power, a brand new state-of- the-art-scalloper joins the New Bedford fleet. With an innovative bow that slopes outward, the vessels is designed to be more fuel efficient and provide a better ride for the crew. In addition, the boat uses an A frame rig, instead of the more common gallows and booms.
2020: In May, the U.S. Department of Commerce announces an allocation of $300 million for fisheries assistance, with almost $28 million given to the state of Massachusetts. The city of New Bedford receives $3.8 million
2020: The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees to buy more than $4.4 million in groundfish from Blue Harvest Fisheries through the USDA Commodity Procurement Program. The fish landed and processed from Blue Harvest will be distributed to schools and food banks across the country.
2020: The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacts New Bedford fishermen and the fishing industry. Due to the loss of restaurant sales, disruptions in export markets, and a decline in seafood prices, fishermen face economic ruin.
2021: Canada and the United States agree to a large quota cut for the haddock stock that straddles their shared fishing grounds on Georges Bank south of Nova Scotia.
2021: Numerous seafood processors and distributors in New Bedford have had to become creative in order to survive. Selling seafood directly to the consumer (Direct Sales) along with e-commerce sales have helped many to survive.