Ecosystem of inches

Every time a putt lips out, or every time a football bangs an upright, you hear the phrase: “It’s a game of inches.” Then there’s commercial fisherman Eric Hesse ’86, the subject of a photo essay. He works in an ecosystem of inches.

Take the new rule, passed in 2007, that lowered by one inch the minimum size of haddock that Hesse can keep. Though the change, from 19 to 18 inches, could put more fish into Hesse’s Tenacious, he says it reflects old-school thinking.

“For the past several hundred years, we’ve used the Spanish view that [fisheries] are limitless,” Hesse told me. “It’s only when you begin to believe that the resource is bounded by the ecosystem that you understand that withdrawals [of fish], and hence the value of the withdrawals, are also limited.”

Since smaller haddock bring a lower per-pound price ($1 a pound, compared with $2 for larger haddock), allowing smaller, less-profitable fish to be caught might devalue the fishery’s overall value, says Hesse. It also removes fish from the ocean that have yet to spawn.

Clearly, for Hesse, fishing is more than “just hours on a boat,” says his wife, Lee Ann Swan Hesse ’86. “His thrill is in seeing the big picture.”

That deep/wide perspective is why we profiled Hesse. It’s why we choose any story topic, whether it’s Hesse fishing Cape Cod or economist Margaret Maurer-Fazio teaching her students to “learn to observe and observe to learn” in China. Like the ocean, the revealing truths of any story are beneath the surface. Hesse, for example, is an officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association, helping to empower fishermen — a famously independent lot — to adopt sustainable perspectives and practices.

A Cape Cod native, Hesse has fished commercially since his student days. A Bates physics major, he later earned a master’s in environmental engineering but chose to return to commercial fishing during the 1990s. His is not an unusual voyage. At a party the other day (Bates relevance: it was hosted by an alum), I asked a marine biologist for his perspective on someone like Hesse. He’s seen it before, the biologist told me: fishermen who bring great experience and intelligence to bear on their work. “They often have a unique understanding of the resource,” he said.

Photographer Lincoln Benedict ’09 is a good bellwether of the Bates experience, as he has high regard for Bates people who’ve found ways to pursue lifelong passions. Benedict returned jazzed, though weary, from his overnight journey on Hesse’s Tenacious last November, deeply impressed by the captain’s wide-ranging knowledge and, especially, his zeal. “Eric fishes,” said Benedict, “hell or high water.”

“I’ve enjoyed my share of cranial pursuits,” Hesse said in his pronounced Massachusetts accent. “But I also like the physical aspects of the job, and it’s great to be outdoors.” He said this as the Tenacious returned to Harwichport and the sun broke from the clouds.

“And as you can see,” he said, “this is an exceptional day.”

By H. Jay Burns, Editor

View Comments