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Oral History Project Documents the Portuguese Experience in the New Bedford Fishing Industry

NOAA, UMass Dartmouth Collaborate on Project

portuguese fishing vessels
Names of fishing vessels often reflect the Portuguese influence in the New Bedford fishing industry. Shown here (left to right) are the F/Vs Vila Nova do Corvo, Lady Patricia, and Casa Blanca. Photo by Janice Gadaire Fleuriel, Working Waterfront Festival

The experiences of Portuguese-speaking members of New Bedford’s fishing industry will be documented in a new oral history project to capture the Portuguese-American experiences in one of the nation’s major fishing ports.  The project is a collaboration between NOAA Fisheries Service and UMass Dartmouth (UMD).

The oral histories will be recorded, transcribed and translated, and collected along with related photographs and other documents to preserve the experiences, contributions and information about the economic and cultural vitality of the port of New Bedford, Mass.

Funded by a grant from NOAA’s Preserve America Initiative, the project is also being supported by local organizations with ties to the fishing industry and to the Portuguese community. Collaborators include New Bedford’s United Fishermen’s Club, the Voices from the Fisheries Oral History Database, the Working Waterfront Festival, and UMD’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST), and Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture.

Patricia Pinto da Silva, a social scientist at the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) is coordinating the study with Gloria de Sá, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD) and faculty director of the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives.

“The materials we collect for this project will be used to develop K-12 teaching materials, exhibits and publications, and a variety of products and activities aimed at preserving information about the role of Portuguese-Americans in the fishing industry and local community, which is changing and transforming,” said Pinto da Silva.

portuguese fleet
The Portuguese comprise a large percentage of the owners, operators and crews of New Bedford's fishing fleet, many serving in one or more of those capacities during their working lives as fishermen. Photo by Anne Richards, NOAA Fisheries

Understanding the experiences of different ethnic groups helps understand differential social impacts of fishing regulations,” Pinto da Silva said. “It also enriches our understanding of what being a fishing community means in New England.”

David Martins, a fisheries biologist at SMAST who is Portuguese and speaks the language fluently, is conducting the oral history interviews. Comprehensive interviews will be conducted over several sessions, primarily with men who have been fishing for many years and were recommended for the program by community groups and individuals in the community.  Interviews for the project have begun; coordinators hope to finish by the end of August.

“Involvement in fishery activities and the presence of a large Portuguese community are two of the most prominent cultural characteristics of New Bedford,” said de Sá.  The Portuguese comprise a large percentage of the owners, operators and crews of New Bedford’s fishing fleet, many serving in one or more of those capacities during their working lives as fishermen. “With all the changes underway, including the retirement of aging fishermen, documenting their experience is an urgent matter.  This study seeks to preserve, protect and enhance the understanding of this particular aspect of local and American heritage.”

Material collected through the project will be kept at the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives, which de Sá has directed since 2007. “I feel an urgency to get their stories recorded before these men are lost to us and this chapter of our history and heritage has closed,” de Sá said of the project, which she sees as a mandate for the archives. UMass Dartmouth and the nearby cities of New Bedford and Fall River are located in a region with one of the largest populations of immigrants and descendents of immigrants from Portugal in the Portuguese–speaking world.

Related links:

Project materials will also be made available to researchers and the public through NOAA’s Voices from the Fisheries oral history project at:

“I want to call attention to the human side of the fishing industry and preserve a piece of the history in New Bedford which is quickly disappearing,” de Sá said, noting that many of those being interviewed speak little or no English, making this project different from others. “Portuguese fishermen who worked out of New Bedford in the 1960s and 1970s and into more recent times experienced many changes and a way of life that the younger generations have not. They have great stories to tell.”

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