Fishermen’s Night Out raises money for Cape Wind lawsuit

Well more than 100 fishermen and their supporters turned out at the Portuguese-American Club Saturday night for the first Fishermen’s Night Out, a chance to socialize and compare notes about how to protect the rights of commercial fishermen in nearby waters.

Hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, the event’s goal was to raise more that $10,000 in support of their lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior. The suit contends that Cape Wind’s plan to erect some 130 wind turbines, 440 feet high, in Nantucket Sound will deny them their “long-established reasonable use of the area,” according to Warren Doty, the organization’s president who is also a Chilmark selectman.

Like other members of the association (MV/DCFA), Mr. Doty is quick to point out that he is not against wind turbines in general, but that developers should consider the collateral impact of their projects. Other members of the board are Michele Jones, secretary; Jonathan Mayhew, treasurer; Bill Alwardt, Buddy Vanderhoop, Wes Brighton, and Steve Norberg.

“We keep asking, after these turbines go up, what are the rules, ” Mr. Doty said. “And Cape Wind just says there are no restrictions. But we know that’s not true. Are we allowed to fish there or not? Where are the cables? Is an 80-foot boat allowed in there or a 50-foot boat? How close can they be to the turbines?”

It’s tempting to label the idea of a small, local organization belatedly taking on big government and big business on a shoestring budget as foolhardy, even futile. Even the formation of the group in the first place is surprising, since fishermen tend to be independent sorts who are used to feeling under-represented when policy that directly affects then is set, and under-appreciated for the demanding, dangerous work they do.

“Fishermen are expendable,” said Chris Murphy of Chilmark, registering his long-held skepticism of fishery management planners in particularly blunt terms.

“Fishermen tend to keep a very low profile,” Ms. Jones said. “This is kind of difficult for us, to throw fundraisers and to be out there. We’re going out on a limb here.”

Both Ms. Jones and Mr. Doty cited the late Tom Osmers as the force and the inspiration behind the formation of the association.

“I raised a passel of kids, and one of the ways I fed my family was by becoming a fairly good shellfisherman,” said Ms. Jones, an artist and musician who also has a law degree. “Along the way, I became fast friends with Tom Osmers. I started going to New England Fisheries Management Council meetings with him, trying to represent the Island in the greater fishing world. I don’t know if it would have worked without Tom. He was persistent — most fishermen are.”

Mr. Doty pointed out that the relationship between fishermen and fishery managers has evolved. “Fishermen today recognize that regulations are here,” he said. “One of the main reasons that this association came together was so that we could send people to various meetings and make sure our interests are represented. Tom Osmers convinced people that this was absolutely necessary, and we decided we’d keep up with that.”

As for formulating policy along the way, the association tends to let members follow their own instincts, and interests. “Sometimes we have a real policy, other times we just show up,” Mr. Doty said. “With herring, we just tell Buddy to go to the meetings and give them hell, stick up for us.”

Attending meetings and supporting lawsuits are important weapons in the association’s arsenal, although they may seem remote at times to fishermen who are preoccupied with more immediate concerns, like dealing with dwindling resources and increasing regulations.

Closer to home, an effort to rebuild stocks of winter flounder in Island ponds is under way. “We are part of a federal grant through the University of New Hampshire to study the winter flounder population in the Lagoon and Menemsha Pond, and to stock 50,000 juvenile flounder,” Mr. Doty said. The fry will be released into Menemsha Pond, with the Lagoon serving as a control site.

The study is being conducted by UNH in partnership with MV/DCFA and the town of Chilmark. “It’s a very specific, very complex study with four spots in each pond that need to be checked twice a month,” Mr. Doty said. Manpower for the study comes from the four towns that enclose the two ponds: David Grunden in Oak Bluffs, Danielle Ewart in Tisbury, Isaiah Scheffer and John Armstrong in Chilmark, and Bret Stearns and Andrew Jacobs from the Wampanoag Tribe in Aquinnah. Shelley Edmundson of Vineyard Haven, a doctoral candidate in marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, is helping out with the field work, part of her internship with MV/DCFA, which in turn is a requirement of her Vineyard Vision Fellowship.

“The grow-out piece has been mastered,” Ms. Edmundson said, crediting her Phd advisor, Professor Elizabeth Fairchild of UNH. Quantifying the impact on fishing over the years will be a challenge for scientists and managers, however. “When we release them, are they going to be instant lunch for cormorants,” Ms. Edmundson said. “Can we tag them so we can trace them over the years, to get an idea of the survival rate, to see if they actually enter into the commercial fishery, and if it helps.”

Other items on the association’s agenda include a lawsuit to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a management plan for river herring, also known as alewives. “We feel that river herring shouldn’t just be managed in inshore waters,” Mr. Doty said. “They go offshore, where they are caught, and then there are no herring to come back inshore and go into our herring runs.”

There is also the possibility of resuscitating the state lobster hatchery facility on the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs, not as a lobster hatchery, which the state won’t support, but as part of the shellfish propagation effort on the Island.

It’s a full plate for a fledgling organization, but the energy and optimism among the principals suggests that the association is here to stay, determined to have a say in fishery issues that affect local fishermen and the resource they rely on.

Saturday night they were also intent on having a good time, which wasn’t hard considering a long table groaning with littlenecks, oysters, and shrimp — and salty tidbits to accompany them. Tristan Israel and Paul Thurlow laid an upbeat music track over the proceedings, followed by a handful of tunes by Willy Mason, the Chilmark troubadour just back from a two-month tour in Europe.

Including a matching gift from an anonymous donor, Saturday’s Fishermen’s Night Out raised more than $10,000 and seemed to sharpen the purpose of a group of stakeholders that usually avoid groups like they do a poorly marked reef or a nasty patch of shoal water.