A Fine Kettle of Fish


Paul Molyneaux ’85 left his home near Philadelphia when he was 17 and became a fisherman. Looking back, he says it might not have been the smartest decision, but it led to a life of adventure and excitement and, ultimately, to a career as an award-winning writer.

“I found myself on the docks, and somebody asked if I wanted to go out fishing,” Molyneaux said. “So I went, and I didn’t throw up, which I took as a good sign.”

He fished for scallops from Cape May, N.J., went to California to catch tuna, and then to Maine, where he worked on the commercial fishing docks. Molyneaux moved to Alaska to work on a floating fish processing vessel, but he jumped ship in Prince William Sound, hitchhiked to Anchorage, and bought a boat to go halibut fishing.

“I was living the existence of a hunter-gatherer, and that appealed to me,” he said. “I can remember the first time going way, way off shore. It was 1978, we were going tuna fishing in a storm that sank seven boats, and being totally naïve, I was having a blast.”

He wound up back in Maine at age 24, thinking about his future.

“It was a lot of hard work,” he recalled. “I’m not a big guy, but I was on deck lifting these 80-pound baskets of fish when I wasn’t weighing 130 pounds myself. I was committed to the fishing business, but I wanted to do a little more than be a grunt on deck, so I looked around for a school.”

He found URI and enrolled in an associate’s degree program in fisheries and marine technology, earning an academic scholarship and the top grades in the program. He remembers being particularly impressed with Professor Albert Hillier, whom Molyneaux recalled as “an old Newfoundland fisherman who taught net mending; Andreas Holmsen, a big Norwegian guy who taught resource economics; and Conrad Recksiek, who brought a genuine excitement to fisheries classes.”

“I had 19 credits per semester,” he added. “I was doing schoolwork all the time. I remember going to Narragansett Town Beach to do my physics and trigonometry homework, writing out the formulas in the sand.”

To support himself, Molyneaux worked weekends on the docks in Point Judith, and in the winter he would truck shrimp from Maine to Rhode Island.

“During my second year at URI, I slept six hours a night, six nights a week, and not at all on the seventh night. I would drive to Maine, get a load of shrimp, return, sell it, and still be in class the next day.”

After earning his associate’s degree, he went fishing again, despite being encouraged to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Eventually he ran a fish processing plant and became a fisheries development consultant, training members of the Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine and the Central Yup’ik in Alaska in fish processing and marketing.

He became discouraged with the fishing industry in the late 1980s when stocks of ground fish crashed and the quantity of discarded bycatch seemed to grow. He switched to lobstering in Maine for a while, then became a sea urchin diver, but even that fishery declined. When a federally funded retraining program was offered to Maine’s fishermen, he jumped at the chance.

“I walked in and the guy asked, ‘What’s your wildest dream for a new career?’ and I said I wanted to be a writer,” Molyneaux replied. “He asked why. I told him writing is like fishing—you don’t know what you’re going to get paid for your product, or even if you’re going to get paid, and you’re pretty independent. So they said ‘sure,’ and paid for me to go to Goddard College for two years.”

He finished the program in 1997, and the following spring he published his first article about the sea urchin fishery in The Fisherman’s Voice. Four months later The New York Times bought an article he wrote about swordfish. “I thought when I got into this writing thing that I was done with fishing, but I have sold only one story that didn’t have to do with fishing,” he said.

His first book, Doryman’s Reflection: A Fisherman’s Life, is his answer to Sebastian Junger’s bestseller The Perfect Storm. “I was impressed with his research and the way that he wrote it, but he also missed a few things, like the fact that fishermen don’t all live in bars. If commercial fishing as we knew it is gone, I don’t want readers to believe that all we lost were barflies.”

Partly autobiographical, Doryman’s Reflection is the true story of Bernard Raynes, one of Maine’s last independent commercial fishermen, whose family had fished the area since the 1640s and on whose scallop boat Molyneaux worked. One reviewer wrote: “Bernard’s family history is a microcosm of the history of ocean fishing in this country, and the author imbues it with his own obvious love for this way of life.”

Molyneaux won a Lisa Patterson Fellowship in 2003 that allowed him to spend a year researching the aquaculture industry around the world, which became his next book, Swimming in Circles: Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans. He described it as a critical look at the industrialization of the aquaculture industry, especially the farming of carnivorous fish and shrimp.

“I’m in favor of aquaculture,” he explained, “but they’re following the same economic rationale as the industrialized fisheries were, making the same mistakes and causing the same problems. Farmed shrimp and salmon are filling niches left empty by species that no longer can survive because the ecosystem is impaired.”

Reviewer Donna Seaman of BookList called Molyneaux “a veteran of myriad industry and government meetings, a thorough reader of reams of data, and a tireless interviewer and traveler.“

In 2006 Molyneaux was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship after a neighbor read Doryman’s Reflection and encouraged him to apply.

The author spent last summer on a two-month excursion to research his next book. “I toured Chile looking at what appears to be a sustainable sea urchin fishery there, then to Iceland where they’re doing some interesting stuff with markets to get fish prices going up —buying fish from small scale producers and marketing them on a global level—then on to Alaska to look at subsistence fisheries.” In the fall he went to Asia, examining the role of women in fisheries in India, and community based management of fisheries in Cambodia and Thailand.

“I want to write something positive,” the author said. “This next book is about solutions and what’s going well in the fisheries of the world.”

By Todd McLeish