Personal: Quiet Defiance


I wish I had taken a picture of him. Instead, all I have is the picture of his boat.

He was a young man, maybe early thirties, cleaning out his boat after a seven-day trip out to sea, looking for scallops. Clean cut. Polite.

He had parked his truck on the pier to load and unload things into his boat and apologized for being in our way as we walked the piers on the last night of our honeymoon. A chance encounter turned into a conversation that is still with the both of us.

He has two kids. Another on the way. He was, he told us proudly, a fifth generation fisherman. He and his family have fished from Provincetown all his life. He had worked as a deckhand until he earned enough to buy his own boat.

But it is getting harder. A few years ago the government took away the deep sea licenses from all the small fishermen like him, and gave the same licenses to larger companies with their big factory boats. Now, he can only go three miles out, over seabeds that have been overfished and over harvested.

And the competition is fierce. Where once these fishermen in their small boats could go out past the three-mile border of state waters and into federal waters spreading their fishing over vast areas of water, now they are all crammed into a tiny area, all searching for whatever is left, trying to fill their boats.

It’s been made harder recently, with an influx of new fishermen, sons of the wealthy that come to, or live in Provincetown. These new fishermen are given new boats, new equipment, no real worries of whether they make a profit or not. They don’t know or don’t care about the protocols that allowed seamen to work the same waters for generations without harming each other’s equipment, or getting in the way of each other. Their gear is new, but too often hidden, like a trap, just under the water, unmarked, tangling in the nets and dredges of other seamen, those who depend on the sea for a living.

He was a proud young man. Not in that bustling, chest out, testosterone filled kind of pride young men are after full of, but in the pride of someone who has been part of something bigger than himself.

Five generations. That phrase came up again and again. “This is all I know how to do.” he said. “It’s all any of us know how to do and we are being squeezed out. We sell to the local restaurants. Everything they get is fresh. The factory boats? They sell to wholesalers, They freeze it all. Someday, there won’t be fresh scallops anymore. Because people like me are being shut down.”

But it was not a mournful conversation. No, the pride was intact.  He was simply telling us what was happening to his world, a world he loves. Five Generations.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” he said.

And that’s it isn’t it. When you have done one thing all your life, the same thing your father did and your grandfather and two generations more, it’s hard to see your way to something new. It’s hard to understand why the forces around you are pushing you out?

“What difference to I make to the factory boats?. People like me are small potatoes.”.

He told us a story of people visiting the pier one morning after he and several others had been out for a few days. They were unloading their boxes of fish and shellfish. It smelled as much as you would imagine it smelled. That’s what dead things go.

Two tourists walked by, loudly complaining about the smell. “They should not let these boats be here.” the woman complained.

And then they walked down the pier to have dinner at The Lobster Pot. “They buy my scallops at the Lobster Pot.” he said “They probably had my scallops for dinner. But they don’t want me here. They will miss me when they end up with nothing but frozen scallops though.”

He showed us his boat. Then his wife called. “I’ll be home soon, Babe” he said. “I’m talking to some nice people on the pier.  We wrapped up the conversation, and he drove off. The woman I love and I went to the Lobster Pot for dinner.

A couple of days later, we are home. Our honeymoon over. But he haunts us. His story haunts us. His last words said less in defiance than in hope were “I’ll figure it out.”

Five generations. I wish I had taken his picture.


  1. The same type of conversation happens these days with every encounter with a person from generational small business. pharmacy… fisherman… farmer… five and dime… hardware store… undertaker…

    It’s unfortunate… it’s evolution… but not necessarily to a better place. But, it is what it is.

    Love you, Tom. Congrats again.

  2. I’ve heard this story too. It’s haunting. Hard to put into a room and close the door. Is it good? Bad? Neither. And we may never know. I do trust there is a much bigger picture.

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