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

Fisherman from the North Star
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
The three fishermen from the North Star, out of Point Judith, begin hauling, “hardening” the catch into an ever-diminishing space. Trap fishing eliminates the chase; supported by buoys and weighted to the bottom, the traps guide the fish along some 1,500 feet of netting and funnel them into final holding trap — the “box net”– measuring 100 feet long by 70 to 80 feet wide. The owner of the North Starr told Markham Starr that with only his small crew of three, he can catch enough fish in a season to make 60,000 meals.
Fish are weighed before they go into shipping cartons.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
Fish are weighed before they go into shipping cartons. The scale’s time and -and weather- scarred face fits with these traditional fishermen, nearly all of whom have lived their entire lives on the water.
The North Star's bull net swings a load of stripers aboard.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
The North Star‘s bull net swings a load of stripers aboard. The boat travels only 10 minutes from Point Judith to its trap each day, burning about $800 dollars worth of fuel in an entire season; a deep-sea trawler will double that each day. Trap fishing is clean and efficient; the fish haven’t been dragged or hooked.
Nylon traps have replaced natural fibers.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
Nylon traps have replaced the natural fibers that were prone to decay and breakage. Still, they’re in constant need of repair, with only “oldtimers” possessing the requisite skills and knowledge.
Sam Willis reattaches the leader net to a trap.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
Sam Willis reattaches the leader net to a trap at the eastern end of Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge. The breakwater there protects traps from rough water, but one unexpectedly destructive storm could still destroy the nets and wipe out a summer’s profit.
The start of another day for the crew of the Maria Mendonsa.
Photo/Art by Markham Starr
The start of another day for the crew of the Maria Mendonsa. “The future of fishing in New England remains uncertain,” Starr writes. “As more and more regulations pile upon the fisheries in the few remaining ports left on the Eastern Seaboard, fishermen leave the work of generations and head inland in search of a living with a more certain future. These are the types of men and women who built our country. We will all share in the loss when they no longer work our coastline… Perhaps there is more to the end of this tradition than we have considered, and hopefully these images will bring a fuller appreciation of what we stand to lose.”

Starr’s photos, and the audio recordings he makes of his subjects, stitch generations past to those who carry on. He knows that one day, when the last floating trap is taken ashore, when the men you see on these pages have grown old–for the average age of a trap fisherman is 55–what will be handed down after lifetimes of setting and hauling, of feeding neighbors and strangers, may be only stories and photos. “I see history disappearing,” Starr says. But he doesn’t wring his hands. Instead, he carries his two Nikons, stuffs his pockets with batteries and memory cards, and finds the history happening right now, in front of him.

When he went to sea with the trawlers, Starr suffered dreadful seasickness–but he shot thousands of images. One day in Point Judith, he noticed some traps and the curious-looking longboats, and he had to know more: “With the fishermen, I say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I want to do.’ They take me at my word. They say, ‘Okay, just show up and stay out of the way.’ I stay out of the way. And I know not to stand in stupid places. And I never ask anyone to pose. They’re a great group to work with.”

When Starr’s work is done, he makes a point to take his prints to the fishermen. Proudly displayed on their walls are photos of the boats of their fathers and uncles, and their grandfathers before them, and beside them go the new ones: past and present bonded by sea and fish and work, fastened there by Markham Starr.

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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