Fishermen from the village of West Point work together to bring in the menhaden in “Networks.” Courtesy of Brooke Mohnkern

Brooke Mohnkern’s movie “Networks” about migratory baitfish is so authentic, he added subtitles so viewers can follow the fishermen’s accents.

The eight-minute movie opens with Phippsburg fisherman Clint Wallace leaning over the bow of his lobster boat Grace and looking right into Mohnkern’s camera as he unties from the mooring before heading out. Mohnkern captures the dialog from a nearby boat as Wallace speaks over the lumbering hum of the diesel motor.

“That funny looking water’s moving closer, Brooke,” Wallace says, motioning off in the nearby distance with his head as his hands work on the mooring.

“That’s awful funny looking.”

“Networks” is Mohnkern’s first film, and it tells a tightly focused story of a group of lobstermen from the Phippsburg village of West Point who hope to catch the shiny, surface-breaking fish known as pogies, or menhaden, causing all the ruckus in the water. It’s a story for the ages – men chasing fish and the consequences of their quest. But in just a few minutes, Mohnkern also manages to tell a story of a community of fishermen coming together for their common good and spotlights the economic impact of the migratory patterns of baitfish.

Mohnkern, 47, who grew up in Cumberland and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been watching these waters, these fishermen (and their fathers) from a perch on nearby Little Wood Island, which his family owns. His mother is the painter Ann Mohnkern. He is an amateur filmmaker, who graduated from Bowdoin College in 1995 with a degree in fine art photography, and studied filmmaking through the Harvard Extension School.

Brooke Mohnkern Courtesy of Brooke Mohnkern

Just like the fishermen, he noticed the water as it started bubbling and percolating when massive schools of pogies returned a few springs ago. They had been gone 25 years, forcing the fishermen to invest up to 25 percent of their expenses in bait and catch 100 pounds of lobster each day to pay for it. The local fishermen considered the return of the pogies a miracle.

When the fish return each year now, the fishermen band together, set their nets and haul as many of the fish as they can. “It turns into work,” fisherman Eric Wallace says in the movie, and calls their return an economic godsend. “Networks,” which can be seen on YouTube, captures one small community of fishermen as they chase the precious baitfish.

Mohnkern tagged along, filming from his boat. It is his account of what he was able to see and learn as a trusted observer, who was given access. “I was fortunate enough to witness events in-close that most outsiders would never see,” he said. “Personally, I am drawn to hardworking, charismatic, practical people, something the village has in spades. So despite my outsider status, I have made a concerted effort developing relationships there – mostly by being present, friendly, helpful when possible, but not imposing.”

The Phippsburg Historical Society posted the movie on its website and Facebook page to call attention to the local fishermen. Merry Chapin, vice president of the historical society, said the community is pleased with the movie because it portrays the fishermen in a positive light. “It’s interesting and informative,” she said, “and Brooke seems to have developed a relationship with some of these guys, who I would think would be reluctant to talk to him if they didn’t know him and trust him. He did a good job.”

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Department of Marine Resources, said “Networks” provides insight into the complicated lives of fishermen. “It’s a great educational piece and shows the importance of this fish to the bigger picture as it relates to commercial fishing,” he said. “Maine lobster is worth about $1.5 billion to the state of Maine, and it takes a lot of bait to feed all that lobster.”

Before the fish returned a few years ago, bait shortages threatened the industry, Keliher said. “We were cutting quotas when the menhaden started coming back. We thought we were going to have bait shortages,” he said, echoing Eric Wallace’s assertion. “I have the highest regard for Eric Wallace, and what he was talking about in the importance of the fish and godsend it was at the time was very accurate.”

A scene from the short movie “Networks” by Brooke Mohnkern. Courtesy of Brooke Mohnkern

Each spring when the fish arrive in Casco Bay or the waters off Friendship, fishermen from as far away as Washington County come to catch them. Keliher said the menhaden fishery is in good shape because of how it’s managed. Certainly, it’s cyclical in nature and it could disappear again any year, but fewer smaller fish are being caught in the mid-Atlantic, giving more developed fish the chance to migrate to Maine in the spring, he said.

The commissioner laughed at a scene at the end of the movie when one of the fishermen motors away at after a productive day hauling nets full of fish. “Now we gotta to keep our mouths shut,” the fisherman says. “There’s gonna be everybody and their brother coming from all over the (expletive) state of Maine.”

Given the penchant for fishermen talking, the secret was probably already out by the time the guy tied up his boat, Keliher said. “I guarantee, everybody within a 50-mile radius heard about that one by the end of the day.”

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