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Sunday, June 1, 2003


By BOB KEYES, Portland (Maine) Press Herald writer

Bruce McGinnis resisted the idea at first.

The Eastport boat captain had little interest in allowing a photographer from away to spend time with him on his boat, especially during the hazardous winter urchin season. "It's dangerous, even if we are close to shore. Take a small boat and try to lift a ton of gear up in the air when it's rocking, it can get tricky," says McGinnis.

He didn't like the notion of having one more person on deck and one more life to look after.

But when photographer Earl Dotter explained that his project was meant to enlighten people about the dangers of fishing and what crews are doing to improve conditions, McGinnis changed his mind.

"The way I see it, you got to grin and bear it," says McGinnis, captain of The Sea Wife, a 32-foot dragger. "At first, I wasn't keen on it. But we can't bury our heads in the sand and hope the world goes away."

Dotter, a 59-year-old photographer from Maryland, began his documentary project in the winter of 2000. In addition to his work in Eastport, Dotter accompanied the crew of the Portland-based stern-trawler Edward L. Moore for a seven-day trip 120 miles offshore. He also spent time with fishermen from Wells to Vinalhaven.

An exhibition of his photographs, "The Price of Fish," opens at noon today at Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., 261 Commercial St., Portland.

Along with the photographs are extended blocks of text that quote fishermen about their work.

The opening is tied to today's Old Port Festival, but the exhibition remains on display through Aug. 29. Dotter hopes the exhibition later will travel to the midcoast and to Vinalhaven, although arrangements have not yet been made.

The placement of the exhibition on Portland's waterfront is purposeful, Dotter says. He hopes fishermen take the time to look at the photos of themselves and their seagoing brethren.

"I want, first and foremost, to command the attention of commercial fishermen who have survived serious accidents and brushes with death at work. I believe that these photographs, combined with the fishermen's words, are an important medium that allows them to communicate with each other. It is a means for them to encourage specific practical steps toward a safer commercial fishing industry," he says.

In a bigger view, the goal of "The Price of Fish" is to educate the public not only about the dangers of fishing, but the amount of work involved. "The average person doesn't have a clue what it takes to put fish on the plate," he says.

Michael P. Bourque, director of corporate marketing and communications for Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., said his company agreed to host "The Price of Fish" because the exhibition relates to the company's larger goals. "While our company doesn't insure fishermen, our mission is to promote workplace safety wherever we can. This exhibit gives us that opportunity and helps to call attention to the work done by our neighbors here on Commercial Street in Portland," he says.

Dotter has been documenting hazardous working conditions for more than 30 years. In the 1970s, he lived among coal miners. Later, he expanded his work to steel mills, textile mills, construction, logging, health-care facilities, farming, maximum-security prisons and, most recently, emergency responders working on the pile at Ground Zero in New York City after 9/11.

The fishing project came about in 1999 when Dotter accepted an invitation to become a visiting scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health's Occupational and Environmental Health Program. A grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation gave Dotter the means to pursue his work in Maine.

Over the next decade, Dotter intends to focus on the five most dangerous industries in America: Commercial fishing, logging, firefighting, construction and agriculture. "I see the next 10 years as the final phase of active photo documentation work, and hope that by the time it is truly complete it will span nearly half a century," he says. "My wife tells me she expects me to live to at least 90 and die with the camera in my hands, but we'll see."

Among the 71 photographs in "The Price of Fish" is a series of images of Douglas Goodale, who lost his right arm in a winch accident while lobstering off Wells Harbor in 1998. Goodale spent two seasons overhauling his 35-foot boat, "Tabby Brat," to accommodate his physical needs. Goodale still fishes, although he's more watchful of the conditions he fishes in these days.

He told Dotter during the project, "Let's face it, for me it's a hard occupation with already being injured. These safety rules were made because people are getting killed. The wardens are finding drowning victims, fishermen burnt up, blown up - all kinds of accidents over and over again. These accidents all end up as laws."

Looking back, Goodale welcomed Dotter's probing eyes. "When he started coming around and taking pictures and whatnot, you didn't really know he was around. I have done some interviews and things with other people before, and they were poking, pushing and demanding. Not Earl. He was real easy to get along with."

The centerpiece of the exhibition are the images that Dotter took while spending his week at sea with the crew of the Edward L. Moore. The photographs cover a variety of scenes and locales, including at port as the crew loads groceries and at sea, when an 18-foot wave nearly pitched first mate Gabriel Fula overboard. "I'm going," he shouted to his mates, as he somersaulted four times but managed to stay in the boat.

The wave hit with such force, it washed the catch back into the sea, Dotter said.

By week's end, the crew returned to port on Christmas Eve in the midst of a snowstorm with 21,362 pounds of fish.

The experience jolted Dotter. "That was pretty rough for me. I lost eight pounds and was sick half the time," he says.

The discomfort was well worth it, he adds.

"Encouraging an understanding of the true price of fish can serve to foster the kind of respect hard-working New England commercial fishermen deserve," he says.

Photographs by Earl Dotter

When: Noon to 2 p.m. today as part of the Old Port Festival. Regular exhibition hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, through Aug. 29.

Where: Main lobby of Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., 261 Commercial St., Portland

How much: Free

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