The Vineyard has no fish weirs these days. The trapping technique, catching fish by way of corralling them against walls of branches, timber and spiles strewn with nets, is no longer used here.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, Jonathan James-Perry, 33, a storyteller and historian with the Aquinnah Cultural Center, gave a talk about the use of fish weirs by the Wampanoag Indians of this region. In a time when the ocean was bubbling with a lot more fish than are there now, a fish weir was an effective way to catch fish.
A weir is a wall of branches and sticks built in the water that allows the fisherman a way to catch the schools of fish that swim back and forth a few yards from the shore.
There are still Vineyarders who remember Franklin Benson of Lambert’s Cove and his father, Norman, fishing the north shore with their contemporary version of a fish weir. The two harvested barrels of fish and shipped their catch regularly to the mainland. In their day, they called them fish pounds, and the contraptions were quite sophisticated. They were shaped often like a maze. A fish could swim in but it could hardly find a way out. The Bensons caught plenty of squeteague, not to mention other, more familiar species of fish such as mackerel and scup. Norman Benson fished from 1907 to 1964.
Now there are only a few permitted fish weirs in the state, and they operate mostly between Hyannis and Chatham. They are highly regulated, and the fishermen who use them struggle.
Mr. James-Perry’s program went a great deal farther back in time, to the days before fine cotton mesh nets, a time that preceded the colonists’ arrival. He said weirs back then were made of vertical pieces of hardwood, stuck into the sandy bottom. Between each vertical post was a weaving of long branches, not unlike how a basket is woven with fiber.
To demonstrate the way weirs were made by the Wampanoags, Mr. James-Perry built a demonstration weir in the backyard of the Aquinnah Cultural Center. Not much higher than two feet, the weir measured 12 feet in length. He explained that historically weirs would placed in an area of bottom near the shore conducive to gathering fish, such as a tidal pool or a natural sandbar. The falling tide would help catch the fish.
Today’s fish weirs use fine mesh plastic netting that doesn’t allow any fish through. The intent of the Indians’ weir was not so much to prevent every fish from swimming through but to help channel the fish so the fishermen could get them, the historian said.
Plus, it wasn’t that a fisherman would harvest all that was in a weir. A weir could be used as a pen. “They might leave fish in the weir for days at a time,” Mr. James-Perry said. “They took only what they needed.”
Mr. James-Perry is of Wampanoag descent. He grew up in the Dartmouth Padanaram area and spent time on the Vineyard. He said he likes to tell stories about his heritage, and he has traveled around the country sharing his family legacy, which includes being descended from a whaler. For 13 years he worked at Plimouth Plantation talking about the Wampanoag people.
In the backyard of the old Vanderhoop homestead, now the cultural center, Mr. James-Perry had on display an unfinished 10-foot long mushoon, a 10-foot canoe being created from a two-foot-wide tree timber. The canoe was being dug out slowly by the hot embers of a fire burning on top. Smoke from the fire often blew over the backyard and stung the storyteller’s eyes. The sound of the surf on the beach below the cliffs could be heard not far away.
An eel trap was on display. Like the fish weir, the eel trap is created by crafting willow wood into a tight frame and weaving grapevines in and out. The end result is an elongated cage. Mr. James-Perry said his sister made it more than a year ago.
When it was used, the eel trap was baited, left overnight and hauled out of the water loaded with eels.
Mr. James-Perry said the Wampanoags also used fire to catch fish. Many species of fish, particularly the sturgeon, were attracted to a burning fire at night. Mr. James-Perry spoke of fishermen using a torch, powered by whale oil, to attract the fish: “They would have fireplaces in the boats.” Fish would be drawn close to the surface near the boats, where the fishermen could use harpoons, spears and hooks to catch the fish.
In precolonial times there were far more fish to harvest than there are now. Mr. James-Perry said the native fishermen caught tautaug, herring, salmon, pollock, halibut and cod, not to mention black sea bass and striped bass.
Mr. James-Perry gave his talk in the afternoon. There was no one else in attendance. He will give another talk at the cultural center on August 18 from 11 to 3 p.m. and demonstrate how Native Americans made sharp instruments using flint. He will base his talk on a number of Aquinnah artifacts that will be on display. For more information on the center, call 508-645-7900.
Recreational Boating Survey
A recreational boating survey is under way in Massachusetts, and Vineyard boaters are encouraged to participate. The survey is intended to gather detailed information about the recreational uses of coastal waters and boaters’ spending habits. The survey is being distributed by the Tisbury harbor master.
For more information on the Massachusetts Recreational Boater Survey 2010 and how to participate, please visit online maboatersurvey.com or call 617-287-5576.
The 65th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is a month away — from Sunday, Sept. 12 to Saturday, Oct. 16. The organizers of the derby are taking steps to notify anglers about the new federal recreational angler registry card that is required in this and other states. At the derby Web site, mvderby.com, there is a link for anyone seeking to register.