The case against gill nets may be summarized as follows:
1) They are indiscriminate in what they catch. Selectivity is determined only by where they are set and the size of the mesh.
2) They preempt the use of the fishing grounds by others.
3) The quality of the catch is poor because gill nets are frequently left untended for long periods.
4) Fish, mammals and birds that fight their way out of the nets are often so severely cut in their struggles by the wirelike monofilament that they subsequently die from loss of blood or infection.
5) Because the nylon monofilament mesh is all but indestructible, nets that are lost or even legally discarded go on "fishing" for years.
"The fish can't hide anymore," says Tom Morse, a gill-netter based in Gloucester. Poke your head into the wheelhouse of his boat, Surprise, a battered wooden 52-footer built in Virginia 10 years ago, and you will see why. Surprise carries as much electronic equipment as the sleekest Bertram sportfisherman: loran, which will direct Morse onto a given square yard of the Atlantic by using satellite signals; a sonar fish finder; a split-screen video fish finder; direction finders; a ship-to-shore radio; and, of course, the radar that enables Surprise to stay longer on fishing grounds in bad weather than boats could hope to in the old days.
Morse, 60, is the president of the New England Gillnetters Association, and he believes he has nothing to hide or to be ashamed of. Which is why, as the annual migration of cod heads into Massachusetts Bay, he has welcomed an observer and a photographer on board this spring morning. Three hours after we leave Gloucester, we begin to haul the first net. It has been untended for two days because, says Morse, bad weather had kept Surprise in port.
The gill net most commonly used in the North Atlantic is not sophisticated. The bottom is anchored to the floor of the sea with weights, and the net is held up by floats attached to the top. A single net is about 100 yards by 6 yards, and a professional like Morse may fish as many as 30 nets joined together. That's more than 1½ miles of net, and he may have two such sets fishing simultaneously.
Its harshest critics do not claim that gill-netting is easy work. Even when the sea is calm, it is hard and hazardous labor. Today the sea is relatively calm, but one member of the crew is off at a wedding, and so the work of three men will have to be split by two. Morse wrestles the net onto the drum winch as it is hauled, while mate Mark Krantz, 20, stows the glistening wet monofilament in the hold and at the same time pulls the catch out of the mesh with a steel hook.