Surfcasters and Off Road Vehicle Use at Cape Cod National Seashore: An Ethnographic
By Eileen Mueller, M.A., National Park Service Northeast Ethnography Program,
Boston Support Office
A note of sincere thanks to all of the people who participated in this study—especially to the fishermen who took the time to introduce me to the 'surfcaster's Graceland' and for sharing with such enthusiasm their love of the sport.
I need to extend a special thanks to Tony A. for being so patient with all the time I spent in his shop, answering my questions day after day. To Ray and Pete, two great fishermen from New Jersey who made my first experience night surfcasting so memorable. And to my family in Dennis—thanks for your support.
This ethnographic report is meant to aid in the understanding of the ORV/surfcaster user group at Cape Cod National Seashore. It provides surfcasters' perspectives on their own community and the activities in which they take part as well as issues concerning the management of the Seashore.
Surfcasting is not simply a hobby to this park user group. It is an activity that plays a central role in their lives. It contributes greatly to their personal identity and gives them a sense of community.
Despite the occasional rhetoric that seems to focus on losing 30 miles of the original ORV corridor, most of the fishermen appear to have accepted that this decision, though they find it lamentable. Instead, their primary issues with the Seashore are as follows:
- They feel the Seashore does not inform them of management decisions. This contributes to their lack of understanding concerning the entire decision-making process and their subsequent feeling that decisions made by the Seashore are random and illogical.
- They feel they are being excluded from the decision-making process in favor of outsiders.
- They feel their knowledge about the resources and ORV use and their offers to volunteer their services to the Seashore are being ignored.
Cape Cod National Seashore is a popular site on the Atlantic seaboard for off-road vehicle (ORV) use. Following the appearance of Executive Order 11644 in 1972 which required parks to address and manage issues associated with ORV use on public lands, Cape Cod NS initiated a number of environmental impact studies. The information derived from these studies was considered along with the variety of opinions expressed at public meetings when the Cape Cod National Seashore wrote its off-road vehicle management plan in 1981. This plan was amended in 1985 after a beach user survey and further environmental studies were conducted.
Today, the Seashore is interested in understanding the people who take advantage of the ORV recreational opportunities in the park. Surfcasters, people who fish off the beach mostly for striped bass and bluefish, make up a significant percentage of the group of park users that drive on the beach. Past Seashore management decisions led to the closure of a significant portion of the ORV corridor. The surfcasters felt that these actions were problematic. This has contributed to the strained relationship that currently exists between the surfcasters and the Seashore. The present Seashore staff is in the difficult position of having to work with a user group whose complaints and problems concerning Seashore management span more than two decades of time. Understanding the complexity of this issue, the Seashore has asked for ethnographic research to be conducted in hopes that it will lead to a greater understanding of the ORV/surfcaster user group's perspective. This report describes the local ORV/surfcaster community and their views toward Cape Cod National Seashore's management and its relationship with the community.
Methods of Research—Methods of Reporting
Ethnography is a branch of Anthropology that combines participant observation, mapping, photography, interview, and archival research to gain an understanding of a contemporary group of people. The goal is to record the perceptions and knowledge of a group about the customs, beliefs, social habits, technology, art, values, and institutions that make up their cultural way of life.
Conducting ethnographic research can facilitate a collaborative relationship between a park and a park user group. It is important to stress that what is recorded is one group's perceptions—really what can be considered the building blocks of their more all-encompassing world-view. While this is essential for determining the group's own customs and behavior, it is certainly not an objective record of events and actions that have taken place. Ethnographic research is extremely helpful, however, for contributing to an understanding of why a group thinks and behaves as it does. It is this aspect of it that can inform park management decisions.
It is important to note that ethnography can only ever capture one moment in time, a 'snapshot' if you will, of a particular user group. All groups are dynamic. Though there is obviously continuity from one moment to the next or it would not be recognized as a group by the group's members or outsiders, many aspects of a group may change over time. Because the research for this report was conducted in the fall, for example, the information below may be more characteristic of a 'fall fisherman' than, say, a fisherman that comes to the Seashore during the late spring and summer, which is, in fact, the busiest season for ORV use at the Seashore. Research would need to be conducted year-round to discern if this is the case.
I conducted the field research for this project for a month between September and October, 2000. I conducted formal interviews with 21 people; multiple interviews were done with five of those people.
Each individual interview ranged from one to five hours in length. Seventeen of these people are surfcasters, one is a surfcaster who also uses a self-contained vehicle, one works with dune tours, and two work with the National Park Service.
I interviewed 14 people informally. With these people I did not follow any interview protocol but simply conversed with them at length about this subject. Eleven of these people are surfcasters (four of whom use self-contained vehicles) and three are wives of surfcasters. The interviews took place at bait and tackle shops, in the fishermen's homes and rental cottages, on the beach, and at restaurants. Finally, I spent 6 hours one night and two hours one day surfcasting with participants in this study.
The people who took part in this project were extremely generous with their time; the interviews were very thoughtful and honest. In an attempt to keep the fishermen's thoughts, opinions, and perceptions as pure as they intended, not diluted through paraphrasing, a large part of this report consists of their direct quotes that are set apart from the rest of the text by italics. I have simply tried to organize and synthesize the quotes in a way that would be more meaningful to the reader.
Fifteen of the interviewees gave me permission to use their names in this report without restriction. Since it is a rather small community (both the surfcasting community in particular and the Cape Cod community as a whole) I chose to not attach particular names to quotes, in order to limit the extent to which personal feelings about each participant might overshadow the content of their statements. However, I wish for their participation in this project to be recognized so I have attached a list of the participants' names to the end of this report.
Throughout the report I use 'the Seashore' to refer to 'Cape Cod National Seashore' referring to both the place and the institution. I believe it is clear from the context where each is intended. Additionally, I have used the words 'fishers', 'fishermen', and 'surfcasters' interchangeably throughout the text. They all refer to people, both males and females, who fish from the beach.
The first section below is a description of one night of surfcasting based on an actual night I spent fishing with two fishermen from New Jersey. It is intended to give the reader who has not been surfcasting a feel for what it might be like—setting up a context in the reader's mind for the rest of the report.
A Night Surfcasting
Our plan was to meet at 7 p.m. to go surfcasting that Thursday night. The winds had changed though, and the fishermen thought it would be better to go earlier, maybe at 5 o'clock. I received the message too late so the plans remained the same. We met at a little cottage on the beach and ate hot sausage and pepper sandwiches and drank hot coffee on a table covered with books about zoology, fishing, and striped bass hot spots. The drone of the weather station on the radio could be heard as we suited up in fleece pants and layers of shirts, boots and a jacket. Though it was not quite October it was cool and the winds made it even colder.
We carried our neoprene and gortex waders out to the truck that was already packed with tackle bags, bait buckets, coolers, food, water, extra clothing, flashlights and some tools. The rods were carried on the outside of the truck as was a large cooler and a live well—a big bucket that held about two dozen live American black eels.
We left the cottage at 7:30 p.m. and stopped at a convenience store for coffee and snacks on the way to the beach. We arrived at the beach parking lot at about 8:15 and saw five other trucks parked there—the paraphernalia on the trucks made it obvious that their owners were on the beach fishing. We talked to one man who had just walked off the beach as we put our waders on, another layer on top, and loaded up our backpacks with flashlights, tools, coffee, and some food. He could not tell us what the fishing was like where we were going because he did not walk that far down the beach. He had to be in his early 70s while the two fishermen I was with were about 30. They established rapport immediately simply based on the fact that they were all out there fishing the same beach, the same night. It was an interesting exchange between the 'new generation' of surfcasters and the old.
Small buckets filled with live eels were slung over our shoulders, one fisherman had a tackle bag, I carried a backpack and we all carried rods and extra clothing. We started to walk along the beach encumbered by waders and boots, both of which made walking on the sand difficult. The beach was very dark but our eyes got used to it quickly as we walked the 1½ miles to the inlet.
One fisherman pointed out the dark red moon setting over the ocean and the shooting stars (he says he sees them every time he is out there) while the other concentrated on reading the structure of the beach. The tide was a couple of hours shy of dead low so much of the ocean bottom was exposed. They were looking for holes in the sand, areas the fish would hang out when the water came back in. When they spotted good structure they looked around for something defining about the area that would remind them where to come another time. Seeing that there were no man-made structures in sight and that it was dark, they looked at such things as the profile of the beach grass and other vegetation against the sky and the height and shape of the dunes. The fishermen also looked for a smooth, sliding track in the sand. If they found one that would mean at least one person had caught a fish that night and dragged it out.
Much of the decision of where exactly to fish has to do with the wind direction. We chose to stop at the mouth of the inlet; it was not windy at all. There was one other fisherman about 30 yards deeper in the inlet. One of the fishermen I was with approached him to see if he had been catching anything. We saw no other fishermen in the 45 minutes it took to reach our spot.
The two fishermen I was with cast their lines about 15 yards from each other, each standing in about two feet of water. After an hour, one of the fishermen got a fish on the line. He reeled the fish in a bit and then let it run, reeled it in more and let it run some more. "The fish will get tired out eventually," he said. Meanwhile he continued to walk along the shore in the water toward the mouth of the inlet. The fisherman seemed to understand what the fish was doing, was guessing what it was about to do, and was trying to compensate for it. When the fish was close enough so you could see him from shore, the fisherman backed up—essentially aiming to beach the bass. He did just that, dragging the fish up onto the sand. The fisherman guessed the weight and the length, 41 inches and 23 pounds; he was dead on.
We pulled the eel out of the fish; it was still alive so we used it for bait again. Already used bait, rumor states, is more attractive to fish. This may be true since the fisherman hooked into another fish in the same spot very soon after the first. After doing the dance of reeling it in and letting it run and reeling it in again, over and over, he pulled this bass onto the beach, as well. The fisherman carefully removed the hook from its mouth and carried the fish back to the water. Back and forth he rocked the fish in the water, stroking its sides, getting it accustomed to the ocean again. After a minute the bass shot out of his hands toward deeper water. The bass was 38 inches long, plenty big enough to keep, but the fisherman thought that one fish was enough for all of us to eat especially since we had to carry it back to the truck 1½ miles away.
The wind picked up, whipping the sand around making it uncomfortable. Though we had gotten sweaty walking out to the inlet, we now regretted that we had not brought even more clothing. By midnight, the fisherman that had been there when we arrived had already been gone for about an hour and two new fishermen had arrived at our spot. They walked over to one of the fishermen I was with, shining their headlamps at him and the water. As this seems to be a major breach of fishing etiquette since the fishermen feel it scares the bait (and therefore the fish) away, the fisherman I was with got upset and reeled in his line to prepare to leave.
He tied a rope securely around the bass we had caught and tied the other end around his waist. We walked back to the truck, both fishermen again paying close attention to the structure of the beach, one dragging a 23 pound bass behind him. By the time we reached the parking lot entrance the fish was bald on one side, the scales having been rubbed off from being dragged on the sand for such a distance.
Before we walked into the parking lot, the fishermen hid the bass in the vegetation next to the asphalt. When we arrived at the truck it looked as though we had caught nothing. It was about 1 a.m. by this time and some fishermen were just arriving. They came over to ask us if we had had any luck. Not only did the fishermen say no, we had not had any luck, they were also rather elusive about where, exactly, we had been fishing. They told me that once a fisherman found a good fishing spot he did not want everyone to know about it—at least not until long after it mattered. When the coast was clear, one of the fishermen ran to get the fish and placed it in the big cooler attached to the back of the truck before anyone saw it.
We took off our waders and extra clothing before we climbed into the truck, turned on the heat and the radio, and broke into the food and drinks. The fishermen were discussing which beach to fish next; it was only 1:30 in the morning so we still had hours to go before sunrise.
Who Are These Surfcasters?
What type of people take part in the activity described above? As one fisherman said about surfcasters in general:
There is a diversity of people that take part in this sport—from total fishing freaks to stockbrokers and from people that have been doing this forever to people that just started. There is an enjoyment level for everyone that surf fishes.
For about 20 of the 35 surf casters I spoke with for this project* :
- Most of the fishers are men, although an increasing number are women
- Many are old enough to have served in World War II, or are the sons of those who did in fact serve
- Most are from the immediate area, with a few from out of state
- Most pursue a combination of local occupations and often structure their occupations around surfcasting.
- Most learned to fish and drive ORVs through their families, and consider ORV driving a necessity for fishing
- Most fish at least two to three times a week during the season, and fish most frequently (often every day) August through September.
Though I was told by one female fisherman that 26% of fishers are female, my four-hour visual survey one afternoon on a stretch of beach from Race Point Ranger Station to Race Point Lighthouse revealed only 5 women. One was surfcasting for her first time, 3 were sitting in chairs next to their husbands who were surfcasting but the women themselves were not surfcasting, and one was simply sunning herself.
Both of the female fishers I interviewed had thoughts as to why surfcasting is traditionally such a male dominated activity.
Perhaps men often did it to get away from their families—some alone time. More importantly women simply didn't think of fishing. It wasn't in the realm of what they did or what they were taught. (…) No one says women can't do it—they just don't know where to go to learn. (…) Now lots of women come into the tackle shop saying they want to learn to surfcast—a variety of women: from mothers with their daughters to groups of businesswomen.
In the past five years I've seen a lot of changes—a lot more women are fishing. It's a male dominated sport because most of the existing surfcasters are of the World War II era and women of that generation were the type to stay home. But I know probably about 10 women surfcasters that lived in Provincetown—well, they've moved out now due to housing prices.
Four of the surfcasters I spoke with and observed for this project were of the World War II generation; most were in their early eighties. Two of these men and a number of men whose fathers or whose close father-figures fought in World War II made repeated reference to their participation in the war 'for freedom' and the restriction of their freedom at home.
I fought in the war for this country yet, when I come home, I can't drive where I want to on the beach?
Nat and others fought in World War II for freedom. Then to come home and not be given the freedom to drive on their own beaches here?
The heavy participation of the WWII generation in surfcasting is mentioned repeatedly by a number of interviewees and is especially important in that it seems to be the base of a 'freedom' theme that came up throughout the study. However, most of the people participating in this study were not of the WWII generation, though two-thirds of them where over 40 years of age. The remaining third were between 25 and 40 years old. I witnessed no one under the age of 25 surfcasting.
Where are they from?
Only four of the surfcasters in this study had grown up on the Cape—two of them were from Provincetown. The 18 remaining surfcasters were originally from elsewhere but seven of them have now lived on the Cape for 20 years or more.
Most of the surfcasters are from other parts of Massachusetts. The second most common state of origin was New Jersey, the third was New York, then Connecticut, and there was one surfcaster originally from Florida.
Fishermen around the world are usually involved in multiple occupations. This is a common safeguard tactic that has come about due to both the seasonality and inherent riskiness of fishing. People will participate in more than one occupation during the same season as well as across the seasons. Communities that depend heavily on seasonal tourism often exhibit this trait as well. Because the amount and types of job opportunities available varies greatly from season to season, the local population learns to participate in multiple occupations in order to make ends meet.
The population of Cape Cod, especially at Provincetown, has historically been involved in the fishing industry. More recently, tourism has taken over as an important source of revenue for the area. Consequently, their pattern of participating in multiple occupations is even more pronounced. In fact, in many ways the pervasiveness of this pattern has helped form a certain stereotype of a true "Cape Codder".
There was always commercial fishing outside of Provincetown and Truro beaches [in addition to inside] because Cape Codders always made money any way and anywhere they could.
The majority of the participants in this project take part in more than one occupation with occupations varying especially between summer and winter. At least six participants have worked in commercial fisheries at one point or another, three of which are currently still involved in it (this does not include those who have commercial licenses for striped bass). Three of the participants own bait and tackle shops while four others are employees at bait and tackle shops. At least five of the participants in this study are retired.
Each of the participants have worked in at least one of the following professions/activities (most working two or three of these jobs): bartender, salesman, fireman, construction and financing executive, house painter, artist, journalist, toll collector, nurse, teacher, cashier, park ranger, carpenter, floor tiler, and lawn mower.
One fisherman thought that about 80-90% of surfcasters fishing during the striped bass commercial season had a license. Many of the surfcasters I spoke with did mention that they sell striped bass during the commercial season to help defray some of the gas and bait costs. Another fisherman, however, said that commercial fishers are a minute part of the number of people who surfcast. One thing seems clear—much more money can be made commercial fishing from a boat than from the beach. Many fishermen, as the quotes below indicate, feel this is a direct result of their inability to drive on so much of the beach now.
Commercial fishing—it's too hard to carry that many fish—it is really not in your best interest to walk.
Especially if you are fishing commercially you can catch 15 to 20 fish. You simply can't get them back without a vehicle. It can really impact your ability to make money which is a big deal in Cape Cod where everyone is scraping together whatever way they can to make money.
For several of the surfcasters I interviewed, fishing was important enough in their lives to have chosen an occupation expressly for its flexibility. House painting, for instance, does not have set hours so if the conditions are great for surfcasting the painter can work another time. Alternatively, a toll collector or nurse can work overtime all winter in order to have weeks at a time to go on fishing trips in the summer and fall.
Learning to surfcast and drive an off-road vehicle (ORV)
A quarter of the fishermen learned to surfcast from their fathers. Another quarter learned from another family member (mother, uncle, or grandfather), while one learned from a family friend. Only two of the fishermen I spoke with learned by themselves through trial and error.
Just over a quarter of the fishermen started to surfcast when they were 14 years old or younger. All of the Cape Cod natives are in this category. Some were even walking on the beach and learning to surfcast as young as 5 years old. About half of the participants in this study learned to surfcast between 15 and 30 years of age. Only one participant in this study, a female fisher, learned to surfcast over the age of 30.
Of the surfcasters that drive on the beach, half started at 17 years of age or younger. All of the native Cape Codders, again, are in this youngest group. The other half of the ORV drivers started between the ages of 30 and 40.
Seven surfcasters spent many years walking the beaches learning how to fish first.
I first walked the beach when I came here—I loved it. For five years I walked the beach and never caught a fish.
Three of the seven that began by walking on the beach now drive oversand regularly. Two of the seven still do not drive on the beach at all. Both are over seventy and do not believe that ORVs belong on the beach. Unfortunately, both have also recently had open heart surgery and for the past year have not felt in good enough health to be able to surfcast, though one has a boat from which he regularly fishes.
I don't think vehicles belong on the beach—they take away from the sport of fishing. I think the Seashore is being generous. I appreciate that the Seashore is here as long as I can walk and fish and launch my boat from the beach.
The remaining two surfcasters that began by walking on the beach now sometimes drive on the beach with others. More often, however, they will walk or fish from their boats. One of the non-ORV drivers is one of the female fishers who indicated that it was lack of experience and confidence in driving on the beach that keeps her from doing it.
I don't personally like driving on the sand because I'm not comfortable with it. I need time to practice driving on the beach. I do like going with others, though, and would go more myself if I were more comfortable with it.
Whether the surfcasters own an ORV or not it seems clear that they all have walked the beaches extensively for various reasons and know the beach intimately.
I've walked every inch of the beach this year from Wood End to past Salt Pond. I've dragged up to 11 fish out—up to 1 ½ miles.
How long have they been coming here?
As mentioned earlier, four of the participants in this study grew up on Cape Cod. Three participants have been visiting and/or living here for more than 50 years while ten fishers have been visiting and/or living here for between 15 and 50 years. Only one has been visiting for less than that; he has been coming to the Cape for 4 years. All but seven of the participants in this study were based in Provincetown (either living or staying in a hotel there every year on vacation).
When and how often do they surfcast?
Most fishers seem to feel that August to mid-September is the best time of year to fish.
I usually take a whole week to be here in August or September, too. This week [mid September] is the best time for fishing at the Cape—the 'magic time'.
During this time a 'fishing mania' might hit when they will fish much more often than normal. About a quarter of the participants, however, say they fish every night during the season from May 15 to November 15 anyway.
You need to go out every day as a fisherman—even if you miss 2 weeks, heck 3 days, you are fishing in the dark.
Most participants say they fish 2-3 times a week during the season. Some have fished much more when they were younger, but now find they get too tired to keep that up as they get older.
Those who are at the Cape on vacation tend to fish every night of their stay—including the night they arrive.
All but three of the fishers I spoke with prefer to fish at night. One commercial fisherman explained why he feels most surfcasters fish at night:
Bass are nocturnal feeders, that is why people mainly surfcast night. In mid-summer you probably wouldn't catch anything in the day. Now you could [in mid September] because they're feeding a lot. …At sunrise, sunset the fish feed—it's the best fishing.
One fisher said he used to like to surfcast every morning before work.
Interestingly, both of the female fishers prefer to fish in the daytime. One fisherman thought the reason might be for safety. However, neither woman mentioned that possibility.
Where else do they fish?
Most of the surfcasters with whom I spoke say they also surfcast in New Jersey, as well as at Cape Cod. Many of them were either originally from there and now live on the Cape, or live in New Jersey now and are visiting the Cape. Cape Hatteras was also mentioned often—especially when comparing off road vehicle plans between the two parks. Other places mentioned, with not as much frequency, were New York (Long Island), Florida, Maine, the Great Lakes, Plum Island (MA), Monomoy, and Nantucket.
The Fishing Experience: What the Seashore and Surfcasting Mean to the Fishermen
When the fishermen talk about surfcasting on the Cape, it becomes clear that the quality and amount of striped bass found there contribute to the feeling that it is a unique and special place. As two fishermen from New Jersey said, "this is as good as it gets." One commercial fisherman explained why:
Currents converge off of Race Point. There are lots of fish here because of this. They come through the canal and up through the bay. They also come around the Atlantic side. The Cape sticks way out and is closest to the Gulf Stream. There is no other place like this on the East Coast.
Fishermen come from all over the East to fish here. That the Seashore tops their hierarchy of surfcasting spots is clear from the language they use to describe it.
This place, the Seashore, is like Graceland to surfcasters—it's famous because it's significantly better then anywhere else.
This is the Mecca of striped bass fishing.
Most of the fishers who are not from the Cape were first introduced to it by a friend or family member who knew the area already and could 'show them the ropes'.
Once they become more familiar with the Seashore they tend to prefer to go fishing alone. They find it very relaxing—a place to 'get away from it all' to think and to experience the beauty of nature.
I fish by myself. Most people I know do. I think it's a thrill to find them [the fish] by yourself. To go where you know your buddy just caught a fish isn't nearly as interesting.
[The beach is a] very productive, very rewarding place—breathtaking. The stars, sunset, sunrise. Captivating. You can be by yourself even with a lot of vehicles with or without friends.
I find it relaxing. I go to be alone—I grew up on the beach, that's where I want to be—woods won't do.
There is peace and quiet yet it's so intriguing and dynamic where the sea meets the land. You think more clearly out there because you are really by yourself.
Many of the fishermen also said they like to go alone because they like the freedom to go where they want to go on the beach without having to synchronize their movements with anyone else. In fact, the two female surfcasters were the only fishers I interviewed who preferred to go surfcasting with others. They said that they like to be able to share their excitement and enthusiasm with someone else. The women, however, do often end up going by themselves just as the men will sometimes go with friends. But even when surfcasters go fishing with others they go their separate ways once they get to the beach so they still have a relatively solitary experience.
One fisherman who has been coming to the Cape annually for 40 years simply said "I come here to go fishing, not to catch fish". It indicates that what is important to the surfcasters is the fishing experience as a whole, not just catching fish.
The Beauty of the Beach
Every fisher with whom I spoke made reference to the beauty of the beach. They describe the sights they feel they have the privilege to see, when they are alone on the beach at night.
I like to fish at night best because I also get to see foxes, coyotes, birds. One foggy night I saw a phosphorescent glow on the fog just like a light when the wave was crashing on a sandbar. It was something no one else saw that night—and I'd never seen it before. There's always something different.
The point of fishing is not fish, it's being there. Because sometimes it's just that 'fishing takes you to gorgeous places.'
The Need for Off Road Vehicles
For a majority of the surfcasters, being able to drive on the beach is an integral part of the whole surfcasting experience for three reasons. First, they see it as part of their heritage. Since well before there were four wheel drive vehicles, locals where driving bread trucks on the beach to get to the fish and be able to keep them on ice in the trucks until they could sell them. The native Cape Cod residents who participated in this study learned to surfcast and drive on the beach at a younger age than anyone with whom I spoke. This is a traditional activity in which boys growing up in Provincetown take part perhaps because Provincetown is somewhat like an island; it has always been surrounded by the beach and now is surrounded by the Seashore. As one of the locals said:
This is a traditional use. There is very little else to do here—we live out in the middle of nowhere—what else is there to do, go to a bar?
But it has been popular for the young in other areas of the Cape as well. One fisherman recollected that surfcasting was offered as an after-school activity at Eastham Middle School.
The second reason they feel that driving on the beach is important is because of the distances the fishermen have to walk to get to the fish. Each bass hole can be ¼ mile apart on the beach, and to "plug away" (casting periodically) along just a mile of beach can take an hour and half. When a fisherman walks onto the beach he or she is usually wearing waders and carrying a tackle bag and/or eels with ice, a rod, flashlight, extra leader and hooks, pliers, water, and some food. Because of this load, if a fisherman catches a fish while walking on the beach he or she will probably think twice about dragging it back to the parking lot.
We couldn't get a fish out of High Head without a vehicle. You really need to be in good physical shape to walk that far and drag the fish out.
A number of fishermen mentioned that they now fish less because they are too tired to walk much of the beach after a day of work. Some reported knowing people who have stopped surfcasting all together because of age and fatigue.
I have a friend that won't really go fishing anymore because she is just too wiped out after work and really doesn't want to walk. The way it is set up now is really facilitating the vacationer who is not exhausted from working all day.
Third, when the fishermen are up high in a truck, they can see the structure, or underwater topography, of the beach better. Being able to read the topography of the ocean bottom just offshore from the beach is an important skill for finding fish. According to the fishers, the bass will hang out and feed in bowl shaped areas near the shoreline. These are referred to as 'bass holes'. By looking at the steepness of the angle of the beach as it enters the water and the amount of structure under the water at low tide they can decide where the bass are more likely to be. They learn these kinds of insights and skills over time.
While describing the activity of surfcasting to me, many fishermen often said they were hunting.
I like the excitement, adventure, the hunt going from place to place.
We are not dead-sticking it out there—we are hunting.
In sum, the fishermen stress that they do not plug away randomly in the water. They emphasize that being able to surfcast in a small area, say, in front of the parking lots, diminishes the quality of the activity for them. The fishermen believe they need to be mobile to be able to find the fish and follow them.
Fishermen like to be able to move up and down the beach, throw in a cast, see if there are fish and then move on and cast somewhere else once or twice.
To the fishermen, going out each night to find bass is like solving a puzzle. Both male and female fishers truly seem to relish the challenge. Many described fishing in a 'man versus nature' scenario, where the fishermen are always trying to add more information to their wealth of knowledge, and thus predict where the bass are in order to outsmart them. They appear to have a lot of respect for the fish and feel it is not only a competition with the fish but with themselves. They say competition with other fishermen is only indirect.
What I like about fishing is its elusiveness—the challenge of the fish. I've walked every inch of beach to find fish. I like to use the knowledge I've accumulated to figure out where I'd go to find fish.
I prefer beach fishing to boats because it is really one-on-one, no machines.
Surfcasting is not like a real sport that has rules—in this sport nature makes all the rules and you have to figure them out.
It's a thrill. You have no idea what you've hooked into. It's a challenge too. The beach, the sea, the fish—who will win? Will you be lucky and clever enough that night?
The extent to which the surfcasting experience is important to the fishermen probably comes out strongest when their description associates it with religion. For many fishermen, the beach and the practice of surfcasting are meditative and quite spiritual.
For me it's like a religious experience—this interaction with nature.
This is my church, where I commune with God.
Fishing is thus not something they treat as a simple hobby. They feel it is part of who they are, something that many of them, in fact, feel compelled to do. Some say it is in their blood. Others tailor the rest of their lives around fishing and have said that their quality of life would diminish significantly if they were not able go surfcasting—it is that important to them.
Examining the Problems between the Surfcasters and the Seashore
The following review summarizes the knowledge and experience of the fishermen, not what the NPS has actually done. Nevertheless, this summary is important for informing future planning by the Seashore management.
In general, though some fishermen questioned what would have become of the Province Lands had they remained in state control, most are grateful the National Park Service took them over because it prevented the type of development that has occurred along most of the East Coast beaches.
Without the Seashore here the whole area would be in condos, so I am thankful they are here.
Many of the surfcasters also appreciate that with such an increase in population on the Cape, some type of management of the off road vehicle corridor has become necessary.
That being said, most of the fishermen said they did not think it was fair to close 30 miles of beach. However, though they find the decision lamentable, most of their complaints do not center on it. What they appear to be most angry about is how the 30 miles was taken away from them, and how they feel they were treated by the Seashore at that time and since. Though there appear to have been contentious actions before the decision to close off this land to ORV use, many of the fishermen interviewed for this project began their stories with this example; it appears to have been a turning point for them. They consider it a precedent for how the Seashore made decisions from then on.
The majority of the fishermen's issues with the Seashore fall into two major categories. One is that they do not understand the Seashore's decision-making process and feel it is random and illogical. The second, which is directly related to the first, is that they feel the Seashore has made a questionable effort to involve and include traditional park users in planning and management decisions as the fishermen feel they are obligated to do.
Nature of the decision process
The fishers maintain that:
- Many NPS decisions are arbitrary, inconsistent, often environmentally counterproductive, and do not follow what the fishers understand of the law
- Many NPS decisions appear to respond more to the preferences of outside environmental groups, at the expense of the locals
Variations of the following statements were expressed to me repeatedly by almost every surfcaster with whom I spoke.
The big issue is inconsistencies in how the Park Service manages. They close off corridors randomly—not saying or giving any warning. Why?
I don't know much about the National Park Service—it's a mystery to me. Sometimes I have no idea why a beach is closed.
Thirty-three of the 35 people I spoke with for this project confessed to having little understanding of how and why the Seashore does things. This leaves them with the overwhelming feeling that Seashore decisions are made randomly and as a result are contradictory, and probably occasionally illegal.
The example of this given to me most often by the fishermen was, in fact, the closure of 30 miles of the off-road vehicle corridor in 1985. Clearly, people have been driving on the beach here to get to their fishing spots for generations. Many surfcasters cited a section of what they referred to variously as the "contract" or the "enabling legislation" in which they believe it states that the Seashore 'will not infringe on the traditional rights of fishermen.'
Though I could not find this statement*, the conviction that it exists in some sort of legally binding document is held by many of the fishermen. By taking away the 30 miles of beach to drive on, the fishermen feel their traditional fishing rights have been infringed upon. Right away then, they see this action as illegal and contradicting the Seashore's own mandate to "preserve a way of life" as they feel the establishment of the Seashore was intended to do.
I truly believe the Seashore is in violation of the charter they signed saying they wouldn't infringe on traditional uses—this is a traditional use.
[The Superintendent] immediately closed High Head to Chatham then [in 1985], not because it had to be done, but because he was in bed with these groups [environmental organizations].
Years ago [the Superintendent] closed down beaches—illegal as hell. Got someone in their last hour in the job to sign something.
But logic is not part of the National Park Service. In 1985, with the stroke of a pen, we lost 30 miles….
The fishermen's belief that 30 miles of ORV corridor was closed quickly, without consultation, and illegally has overshadowed almost everything else. According to the fishermen, the relationship between the Seashore and the locals, at the time it took place, was at its worst. Strong words were used by the fishermen to convey how they felt they were treated by the Seashore at the time.
[Especially in the 1980s] the Park Service used Gestapo tactics.
[The Superintendent] made it clear he despised ORV operators and wanted them off the seashore. [The ranger] at the time used [the Superintendent's] powers, not the law, to get things done that he wanted done. He was authoritarian, used the power to restrict, to bust people's chops.
It also did not help that just before this decision was made, part of the beach from Wood End to Long Point, that has traditionally been seen as the "townie beach", had been closed to ORV traffic.
Characteristic of the National Park Service: time delays, ineffectiveness, inactivity. A 1978 storm caused a breakthrough blocking off Wood End and Long Point. Closed by [the Superintendent]—said it would reopen as soon as the cut healed. The cut was healed fully by 1980 but the route wasn't opened and is still not open.
This action, or lack of action, was used often by the fishermen to demonstrate how the Seashore breaks its promises. This contributed to further mistrust and misunderstanding.
The fishermen feel that actions such as the one sighted above are also indicative of a Seashore pattern of managing by closure.
I think the National Park Service finds it easier to close the beaches then manage them.
The statement above was expressed repeatedly by the surfcasters also in relation to piping plover management techniques. Many fishermen believe the Seashore is using the piping plover, and what they are required to do by law because of its endangered species status, as an excuse to close beaches.
I believe the Park Service is managing by absentee management. They use the plover to close the beaches and ORV users are a minority so they can't do much about it.
I think the Park Service uses the birds to get what they want done, done. Otherwise, why would they close from High Head to the Ranger Station for one nesting set of birds when really the law, I believe, states that you only have to be two hundred yards away from a nest?
The piping plover population has probably exceeded everyone's expectations—they just use them as an excuse to shut down the beach.
I think the plover thing is about the Park Service not wanting people on the beach.
About two-thirds of the fishermen I spoke with feel that the Seashore management has an agenda—that what NPS really wants is a nature preserve or bird sanctuary. To the fishermen, this is the only way to explain much of the managing the Seashore does in relation to the plover. Otherwise, to them, it simply does not make sense. It follows that although the plovers are doing very well, the regulations have not been relaxed any.
The National Park Service is not consistent. Seem to change rules for no reason whatsoever. They have their own agenda. The National Park Service wants the beach just for the birds—that is their agenda.
The number of plovers keeps going up. Once they reach the number they are suppose to [to remove them from the endangered species list] the National Park Service raises the number.
They need to change the [plover] management protocol to threatened, not endangered.
And though they all expressed a need to be concerned for the birds ('everyone wants to see the birds live'), they feel the way the Seashore is doing it will cause the fishermen to become victims of the plover's success.
It's hard not to see where this is all going with the birds. The birds are territorial, will keep coming back, they put their nests far apart. If this is all successful there will be nowhere to drive on the beach—the whole trajectory of where this is going is wrong.
Really they are trying to save the plover at the expense of the commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen are the almost extinct species—it's a dying way of life and the National Park Service is not helping.
One fisherman accepts the closures for the plovers but believes the problem is that the Seashore does not open up the corridor when the birds are not there anymore.
The rules themselves, as they are written, are fine—the National Park Service just needs to be on top of it more. They close down portions of the beach so easily but opening up takes forever. The birds could have been gone for days or weeks—fishermen will walk through and see no birds at all—yet it is still closed because the National Park Service simply never got around to checking and taking the signs down. They really need to remove the signs quicker.
Most fishermen feel this chronic delay in opening up the corridor once the birds are gone is simply another example of how the Seashore is managing by closure. They believe that if the Seashore can close areas quickly they should be able to open them up just as quickly and that their failure to do so is telling.
If they can close it with the stroke of a pen, they can open it like that.
Another example many of the fishermen use to demonstrate inconsistencies and randomness in the Seashore's management policies is in the Seashore's reaction to damage to the resources done by different user groups. Most surfcasters I spoke with believe that off road vehicles do not do damage to the beach when they are on the corridor. Two fishermen that felt that it was not appropriate to have ORVs on the beach expressed that it was unsightly, not that they caused damage.
More [corridor] should be open because driving on the beach doesn't have an impact.
ORVs don't do damage to the beach, mother nature does—the same amount to those [beaches] used by ORVs and those not used by ORVs.
One storm does way more damage than ORVs do. As far as I can tell, they don't do any damage.
Some surfcasters, in fact, referred to a report done for the Seashore where they believe it actually states that off road vehicles do not do damage to the beach.
The fishermen did seem to feel that it would cause damage to go off the corridor (driving off the trails in the dunes). However, they believe that it is rare for off road vehicle users to go off the corridor and that the Seashore simply needs to enforce the rules with more severe repercussions—'no simple wrist slapping for those that break the rules.'
What is troublesome from the fisher's standpoint is that they believe some park users regularly cause damage to the beach resources, yet their activities are not regulated. In particular, the fishermen mentioned that naturalists walking to specific beaches have done a lot of damage. They feel the Seashore does not address this in their management simply because those that represent the naturalists have a significant amount of power in Provincetown.
The naturalists cause much more damage walking up the dunes. It causes lots of erosion.
People walk all over the dunes at Moors Road to get to the beach—causes lots of erosion. The ORVs are not going all over the dunes.
Moreover, a number of fishermen feel the Seashore has broken laws by constructing a path for this same group to get to one of the beaches.
The National Park Service built a trail to Wood End through an environmentally sensitive wetland…
The path itself [out to Wood End] is in violation of environmental laws.
Many fishermen feel, therefore, that the Seashore is treating two user groups very inequitably, and that this demonstrates inconsistent management.
The fishermen's perception of the Seashore's decision-making process as capricious and illogical has left them with an overwhelming feeling of frustration. In their opinion, the decisions that the Seashore makes can profoundly affect the lives of those in the local communities, especially those from Provincetown, who are essentially surrounded by the Seashore. Not only does it alter their own ability to fish recreationally or otherwise, but Seashore decisions cause tourist behavior to change. These impacts are frightening to many who have grown up on the Cape or have made the Cape their home. Most of them, in one way or another, make their living from tourists.
National Park Service regulations have hurt my business. Especially last year when they ran out of permits so early on and none of the people who usually come in the fall could come. Some people who came for 50 years couldn't come. Hurts all the businesses in town.
The fishermen believe that Seashore decisions have the ability to threaten the livelihood of Cape Cod residents and without a clear understanding of how and why the Seashore does things, they generally feel powerless to influence the process. This is reflected in the comment that many fishermen made: "you can't fight the government."
The situation that has been created is circular in nature. The perceptions recorded above have helped to perpetuate a bad relationship between the Seashore and the surfcasters while the bad relationship, in turn, contributes to the creation of negative perceptions.
Including the surfcasters and their knowledge in management decisions
The surfcasters feel that they are essentially left out of most NPS planning activities. Consequently, they believe the Seashore management is unable to utilize the valuable local knowledge and volunteer services that the fishers could provide.
From the beginning, many of the fishermen said, the locals felt they were disregarded in the decision-making process. They believe the creation of the Seashore was started by outsiders and to this day the Seashore continues to seek and listen to advice and information from outsiders before they do from the locals.
The National Park Service came in with their own perceptions without ever sitting down to talk to people. They thought about natural resources first and met with the people too late.
The National Park Service brought in a scientist from Iowa or somewhere to do a comprehensive study. What does he know about the area? Someone who has probably never seen the sea. They should ask people from here.
Several surfcasters interviewed for this project feel that a number of the park rangers are not from the area and know very little about the seashore or the local situation. The fishermen find it frustrating that rangers, who they feel are inexperienced, disregard the locals and the surfcasters with their intimate firsthand knowledge of the seashore and its resources. A majority of the fishermen I spoke with also believe that the rangers have an uncalled for confrontational attitude. Story after story was related by the fishermen to demonstrate how poorly the rangers treat them.
The attitude changes from administration to administration but always it is that 'they know better than us' at the higher level but then have kids that don't know what is happening at the working level—kids from elsewhere that have never seen the seashore and have a badge and gun mentality.
The local guys that had been working at the Seashore were eventually phased out and young guys with no knowledge of the area came in. No experience, no authority—when asked what their job description is they will say "enforce the law"—what laws get broken out here? Seem to forget the other part of their job to mentor, guide, help people.
The rangers don't respect people. They give tickets for being in your vehicle while fishing. Like lying across the seat to open the other side door and the ranger said I was sleeping. Simply a little respect or understanding [is needed]. Young rangers carry guns. Why?
I went to get a permit and it was like the ranger was trying to find something wrong. This ranger that was not from here tells me my mud/snow tires were too aggressive. I looked over at the Park Service vehicle and said, "if mine are aggressive, yours are downright hostile."
Why doesn't the Park Service do any sensitivity training? Their job is more than law enforcement.
In addition to often feeling disrespected and disregarded by Seashore staff when they encounter them, the fishermen feel that the Seashore is not making any effort to include them in meetings. The surfcasters know that the Seashore is suppose to request public input for certain management decisions but they feel that while Seashore goes through the motions, it is not really interested in including them. Many of the fishermen feel this lack of effort on the part of the Seashore is due to the fact they have an agenda that they are trying to push through so they do not want to know the public's opinion.
When the National Park Service is going to have a meeting they put this tiny announcement in the back of the paper that you'd never be able to see if you weren't looking for it on purpose.
The public isn't warned about upcoming changes because the Park Service is worried about repercussions—'better not to tell them what will happen.'
The public question and answer period means nothing—the Park Service already knows what they want to do and they simply go through the motions of asking the public—why bother?
I'm sick of going to meetings where we are told what the National Park Service is going to do. We need to work together.
A few fishermen went out of their way to ask for explanations from the Seashore on particular issues and they feel the response, or lack of response, they received was not an appropriate way to deal with the public.
The National Park Service are poor communicators. I asked at the negregs [negotiated regulations meetings] why we couldn't drive all of the way from Eastham to Provincetown and the Deputy Superintendent said just "because." What a horrible, arrogant answer from a public servant.
I (…) sent a letter to the National Park Service saying that their random rule changing hurt my business and the town. I got no response.
As discussed earlier, most of the surfcasters are of an older generation—they feel they have earned the right to be listened to. They portray a detailed, intimate knowledge of the beaches and an enormous respect for nature and the resources of the area. However, they feel that their opinions and knowledge are disregarded by the Seashore.
They have some ideas for Seashore management that do not overlook other users. Most of the surfcasters appreciate the fact that there are other park users that may not want to see ORVs on the beach.
Most people don't go far [from beach entrances] so there are so many areas that aren't really used. They should be opened up.
They could open from Head of the Meadow to High Head at night—there are no sunbathers at night.
We could go behind the swimming beaches and go to the in-between beaches where no one goes. This would spread the users out more.
All 38 miles should at least be open at night. There are no other groups that are competing with us at 1 a.m.
Additionally, many of the fishermen have offered their own services to the Seashore. That they have volunteered to do a number of tasks clearly demonstrates their wish to be involved.
They need signage to say things like 'steep area—check speed, air pressure', but there is none. We even offered to make the signage and put it up but the park service says no, it has to be official Park Service signs.
We offered to do an auxiliary beach patrol—offered because the park service doesn't have enough staff. The Park Service accepted this offer but hasn't done anything.
I could do an ORV organizational newsletter with email. The National Park Service should do this to inform people about tide charts, how many permits are left, what beaches are open.
I have offered to run seminars for new rangers—give an opportunity to work with the new SUV community.
The fishermen feel their offers to help have been turned down and they do not understand why. This adds to their frustration and the perception that the Seashore simply does not want the local community involved. Some fishermen even feel the Seashore is going out of its way to make things difficult for the surfcasters and thwart the local communities' efforts to make progress.
At the beginning of the season it [the corridor] was all set up like a maze—the access to the beaches and where you had to get on and get off—it was very difficult. I think the Park Service made it hard on purpose.
Every time a new Superintendent comes in we have to start all over and once we start to get somewhere, the Super leaves. We'll never get anywhere this way.
Although many of the fishermen interviewed do not understand why decisions are made and think many of the rules do not make sense, they still respect the regulations. The fishermen make it clear that they follow the rules carefully because they do not want to lose what little corridor they have left. More than one fisherman said that very few people break the rules. Those that do, they believe, are people that have no idea how hard they have had to work for what they have. One fisherman, when asked why he did not just go on the beach in the winter said:
Yeah, and lose all of our privileges? Not worth it.
Steps Toward a Better Relationship
Despite a multitude of complaints and problems, most of the fishermen emphasized that recently the situation with the Seashore has improved significantly. They give credit to the current Seashore staff who has made a concerted effort to mend the relationship with the surfcasters.
Things have gotten better this year.
The Park Service is reasonable—not as antagonistic as they used to be.
It's better now than before, it's much more respectful. It's 1000% better than 10 or 12 years ago.
Even the fact that this ethnographic research was being done made an impression on the surfcasters. Many said they were pleased that the Seashore was making an effort to understand who they are. Though there is obviously a long history here that will not be overcome easily, it is a good sign that the fishermen appreciate the efforts that have recently been made.
Fortunately, by the end of this project, it became clear that many of the problems that fishermen have with the Seashore are not insurmountable. Indeed, efforts are already underway to ameliorate many of them. Below I have briefly compiled some of the recommendations made by the fishermen during the project concerning how they felt their relationship with the Park Service could be improved.
Recommendations from the Interviewees
Post pertinent information in highly visible locations
- Distribute ORV user-group newsletter by electronic mail
- Accept ORV user's offers to volunteer both knowledge and labor
Although the Seashore management already tries to keep the public informed of what they are doing and why, most of the fishermen stated that they continue to feel uninformed. They believe that the Seashore management needs to go above and beyond the normal procedures for keeping the public apprised of meetings and changes that are about to occur. The fishermen suggested two ways of doing this. One was to put announcements and briefing sheets in places the fishermen are more likely to see. Bait and tackle shops were the places specifically named as ideal locations to post information since just about everyone who fishes off of the beaches of the Seashore stops in one of them either before or after fishing. The second suggestion was to start an ORV newsletter to be sent out by email in order to get all types of pertinent information to the right users.
Additionally, many fishermen insisted that they were capable of assisting the Park Service in many ways, not only through their knowledge of the Seashore area and the surfcasting activity, but also by doing some of the work that they feel the Park Service cannot get done due to being understaffed. They strongly recommended that the Park Service accept their offers to volunteer, stating that they felt it would help in the management of the park. The fishermen referred to a number of efforts to volunteer they have made in the past, all of which they still appear willing to do: creating and maintaining the ORV user list-serve mentioned above, take part in auxiliary policing efforts, creating and putting up appropriate signage, collecting trash along the ORV corridor, and conducting training workshops both for new ORV users (they feel the video shown at the over-sand permit station is not adequate) and for new rangers (which they referred to as a type of "sensitivity training" to enable the new rangers to understand the ORV user group better).
For many surfcasters, emotions and feelings about the Seashore and their management of the ORV corridor have built up over decades. This is not any easy situation to tackle from anyone's perspective. The differences between the Seashore and the surfcasters are great with both sides struggling to understand the other. Fortunately, a majority of the fishers interviewed for this project appeared willing to put forth effort, in a number of ways, to better their relationship with the Seashore. This project in and of itself was a welcomed act to the surfcasters. Creating room for more positive interactions such as these between the Seashore and the surfcasters will lead to greater understanding that should help to facilitate more mutually beneficial relations in the future.
The Seashore has had to accommodate a number of park users, often with conflicting expectations of what a park should be. It must often balance one constituency's needs against those of another. In many ways the Seashore is in a rather difficult position. It has less leeway and power than the fishermen imagine because of the number of people and agencies to whom it has to answer. Hopefully, this study will help the NPS resolve some of the differences between the Seashore's management approach and the concerns of the surf casters. In so doing, it will continue to improve the partnership necessary for operating the Seashore.
Community consultants for this project:
- Tony Avallone
- Molly Benjamin
- Michael Byrnes
- Ed Cestero
- Connie Codner
- Rob Costa
- Steve Cotty
- Raymond Guzman
- Louis Mackeil
- Stephen Martin
- Tom Murphy
- Emilio Rogel
- Peter Schroeder
- Tony Stetzko
- Cliff White