Six miles northeast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, stretching some 18.5 miles in length to end
just seven miles southeast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, lies Stellwagen
Named after U.S. Navy hydrographer for its Coastal Survey, Captain Henry S. Stellwagen, the
bank rises sharply from over 300 ft on the western and the inshore edge to a depth of roughly 80
ft on the upper plateau, then gradually drops off, over some six miles, to the eastern or offshore
edge. Formed of glacial till from the Laurentide ice sheet in the last ice age, this terminal
moraine, composed of mostly sand and gravel, was once above sea-level and connected to
Provincetown. The bank‟s shape can best be describes as sickle-shaped over its length from
north to south and wedge-shaped in width. The western edge being the thick part of the wedge.
Stellwagen‟s cod fishery was already well established, when Capt. Stellwagen first charted the
region in 1854. From colonial times, the bank‟s groundfish have provided a source of food and
wealth for the developing nation. To quote Molly Benjamin, “Cod have been so important to the
Massachusetts economy that the cod has been designated the official state fish. A wooden
codfish , „the sacred cod‟, hangs proudly in the State House, a symbol of the fortunes that have
been built in this state from abundant sea riches.”
Stellwagen‟s riches are the result of its geology and water dynamics. Because of its relative
inshore location, 14.7 miles from the mainland, the bank is influenced more by the cold water
from the Labrador current than the Gulf Stream. Further, the twice daily tidal fluctuations
moving east and west buffet the bank‟s edges with currents which drive the nutrient-rich bottom
water to the surface in a process called upwelling. These nutrients are the fertilizers for the
“grass of the sea”, phytoplankton, which provide the basis of the food chain, thus the attraction
for the abundant sand-eels and herring which in are, in turn, food for cod, haddock, bluefin tuna,
striped bass, sea-birds, and whales. In an effort to protect Stellwagen Bank from development
and exploitation of natural resources, 638 square miles of the Gulf of Maine were designated as a
National Marine Sanctuary in 1992.
Not only is there an east and west movement of water
across the the bank, there is also an east and west
migration of codfish across the Bank. The primary
spawning grounds are on the 120 ft edge along the coast
north of Cape Ann near Gloucester and Hull to
Plymouth on the Massachusetts South Shore (Bigelow
and Schroeder, 1953). That places Stellwagen right in
the middle of westward spawning migration from the
deep-water to the east taking place from November to
April (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953), and the eastward
migration to the deep-water again, May through July.
With the technological revolution of the 20th century
and myopic groundfish management, the Gulf of Maine
cod fishery was on the brink of collapse. Today it is on the road to recovery. Management
programs are now targeting the resource, i.e. the fish, and not the fisherman. A number of
indicators point to this recovery fostered by the rebuilding plan. First, for the past few seasons
we have once again been catching haddock on the bank with regularity, for the first time in ten
years. Second, the size and numbers of the fish have been increasing. As a result, charter
skippers up and down the bank proclaimed 1998 the best season in twenty years.
Further,draggers working the bank this year were able to reach the TAC, total allowable catch, so
quickly, that the fisheries management council imposed an immediate commercial fishing shut-
down from February 1 to May 1, 1999.
When the herring and sand-eels are abundant, as they have been the past two seasons, drifting
jigs and teasers are the best producers. Most of Stellwagen‟s cod are between 8 and 15 pounds.
Pool-winner‟s typically top the scales in the 20 pound class and up. 40 to 50 pounders are the
exception rather than the rule. However, this fall one charter boat returned to port with three
whale cod over 50 pounds, with one tipping the scales at 67 pounds. When the tide is slack or
when the eels aren‟t in evidence, skimmer clams work great, especially for wolffish. The famous
“Jersey Clams”, with a special “glow” all their own, seem to out-fish our indigenous New
England sea-clam. It easy to tell when the cod are grubbing on the bottom, just check the
stomach contents. If you find brittle stars and echinoderms, switch to clams. If you find sand-eels
or herring, use jigs and teasers. The new high-tech fiber lines are especially good at keeping
contact with your bait, allowing you to feel every bite. However, tangles can be a nightmare.
Stellwagen can be accessed from a number of ports on the east coast of Massachusetts.
Provincetown to the south, Plymouth, Green Harbor in Marshfield and Scituate to the east and
Boston and Gloucester to the north all have vessels for charter and some have party boats. The
run to the bank is usually an hour to an hour and a half. The relatively short run to the fishing
grounds means more fishing time. Six-person charter trips to Stellwagen are for about 10-11
hours dock to dock and cost between $800 and $1000 per day. All tackle and bait are usually
provided on charter vessels.