The Mackerel Fishery

By Charlie Sparrell, November 11, 1998

The founders of Plymouth Colony, including the "Men of Kent" who settled in Scituate, were not fishermen by trade. Generally, they were English village artisans who, by necessity, became subsistence farmers in order to survive. Commercial fishing in Massachusetts Bay started in Essex County and came later to the South Shore.

About 1645, families from the Devon coast settled at Marblehead. They promptly scandalized their pious neighbors by announcing that they had come to New England "not to praise God, but to catch fish." The Marbleheaders initially fished from small single-masted open boats called shallops (you can see an English shallop alongside Mayflower II at Plymouth). The crew fished with handlines over the side. The catch of cod was split, salted and dried in the sun. Dried salt cod found a ready market in Europe.

The shallop soon evolved in Essex County into a specialized fishing vessel known as a “Marblehead Schooner.” The Marblehead Schooner was small and bluff-bowed with two masts, a covered deck and a cuddy cabin. It was seaworthy, reasonably fast and bulky enough to carry a substantial cargo of fish. The crew, who were more interested in fishing than in sailing, handled the fore-and-aft schooner easily from the deck. This vessel was far from the elegant Gloucester schooner into which it eventually evolved. However, the design met the needs of the New England fisheries and spread along the coast from Maine to Connecticut as the industry grew.

When commercial fishing began out of Scituate Harbor around 1700, we can assume the vessels used were Marblehead Schooners. However the main catch was not cod. The Scituate fishermen jigged over the side for mackerel. At that time, vast schools of mackerel appeared in Massachusetts Bay in the spring and vanished before fall. By 1770 upwards of thirty vessels fished out of Scituate and it was not uncommon for a single vessel to take 1000 barrels in a season. Deane states in History of Scituate, 1831, that in 1830 about 35 vessels fitted out annually at Scituate ranging in size from 50 to 150 tons and carrying from six to fifteen hands. Mackerel was not dried, but packed in brine in barrels. The industry supported not only the fishermen themselves, but also the building of fishing vessels on the North River and the manufacture of barrels. For example, during the mid 1770's, Noah Nash ran a cooperage at Scituate Harbor. Nash made fish barrels using local oak and ash for staves and hoops.

The market for mackerel was not Europe but the Southern and West Indian Plantations where the fish provided cheap protein for the slaves who worked in the fields. After the end of the fishing season, the larger vessels refitted to carry the year's catch south. Fish was traded in the West Indies for sugar, molasses, tapioca and, if possible, for Spanish silver reales. The Carolina and Georgia plantations returned rice, wheat flour, tobacco and indigo. The small size of the vessels and the lateness of the season made the trade particularly hazardous. Ruth Vinal Jenkins (1746-1811), who lived where the Inn at Scituate Harbor now stands, lost two husbands and a son at sea.

Fishing was interrupted by British blockades during the Revolution and the War of 1812. By the 1840s the mackerel runs began to diminish and the number of vessels began to decrease. The start of the United States Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the West Indies ended the trade.