The Water’s CommonwealthPrint
By Darcy Courteau
March 19, 2013
One of David Hawxhurst’s photographs shows dugout canoes outfitted with patchwork sails made of grain sacks. From the picturesque vessels, fishers cast nets into the Gulf of Ghana, pulling in a modest daily catch to make a living and help feed Ghanaian villagers. Through Hawxhurst’s lens the boats seem works of art, but the stories locals tell him are not pretty. There, and elsewhere along the West African coast, industrial trawlers from around the world are rapidly depleting fish stocks, dragging enormous nets across the seafloor, some even pirating fish in shallow waters along the coast.
For Hawxhurst, who grew up near Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, the story of not enough fish to go around was familiar. The Chesapeake’s harvest has been endangered by pollution and government mismanagement. And the Chesapeake’s own culture of small-scale fishing is vanishing.
Hawxhurst created the Coastal Culture Preservation Project, an online photo archive of water scenes and watermen—both historic and contemporary. His incentive was learning that a family’s trove of fishing photos had been thrown out in the small, declining fishing town of Saxis, Virginia. An interactive world map lets users select from among documented areas. He envisions the site as a place to teach the commonalities of coastal habitation.
Those he’s photographed have proved to be an astute audience. People who are catching species related to the fish in the photos, he says, “are very interested in how others are doing it in other parts of the world.”
Darcy Courteau is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Her most recent work has appeared in The Atlantic, Oxford American, New Orleans Review, and The Wilson Quarterly.