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

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.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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.
The Amelia Bucolo
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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.
The Maria Mendonsa
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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
Maria Mendonsa's pilot house
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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.
Amelia Bucolo crew
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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.
Ian Campbell tosses bass
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
Ian Campbell tosses a small striped bass from the sorting table back to sea.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
Scup (a.k.a. porgy) is one of the trap fisherman’s most valuable catches.

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
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

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