Islander gains valuable conch-bass-scup permit

John Black launches pot fishing career with a big boost from the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust.

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West Tisbury fisherman John Black was recently awarded a state permit for conch (channel whelk), black sea bass, and scup by the Martha's Vineyard Fishermen's Preservation Trust. — Rich Saltzberg

The Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust announced the recent award of a combination conch (channel whelk), black sea bass, and scup state permit to West Tisbury fisherman John Black. Gaining such a permit is increasingly uncommon for small fishermen in an era of permit consolidation and scarcity, several members of the trust said.

Black is no stranger to the permit he gained. He was the longtime friend and deckmate of the last fisherman to use it, the late Luke Gurney, a respected Island conch fishermen who perished in an accident off Nantucket in 2016 aboard his boat No Regrets. Afterward, Gurney’s combination permit passed to his widow Robyn. She generously sold it to the trust last year — doing so to honor her husband, who was a trust board member.

“Luke was extremely proud of his participation on the board, and believed in its mission wholeheartedly,” she wrote in a text message to The Times, “which is why I approached the MV Fishermen’s Preservation Trust hoping it was a possibility, but not knowing. I knew in my heart this is what he would want.”

Gurney could only hope for the sale to be a possibility, because at the time there was no legal route to transfer such a permit to an entity like the trust, trust executive director Shelley Edmundson said. But after meeting with the trust, the Division of Marine Fisheries saw value in a Vineyard permit bank, and launched a pilot program to facilitate the transfer, trust president John Keene said.

Edmundson said the pilot program is unprecedented, and along with the hefty $1 million acquisition of a federal sea scallop permit last year and a federal lobster permit last month, has helped make a trust-managed permit bank a reality.

As for John Black, his connection to his old friend doesn’t stop with the permit.

“The No Regrets is back on the Island,” he said. “I bought it from Robyn, his widow, after about a year of it being on the market,” he said. “I also bought conch traps, sea bass traps, scup traps, all the line, all the buoys, bait bags — I have everything literally ready to go in the water right now sitting at my house.”

While he described the trust’s award of the permit — a fair-market-value transaction with elements still being worked out at the state level — as “nothing short of a game-changer,” the possession of it and moreover the ownership of No Regrets, a 42-foot Prince Edward Island–style lobster boat Black toiled off the stern of for years, is “bittersweet,” he said.

Gurney, whom Black described as a tremendous mentor, told him in 2016 he’d learned about all he could aboard the No Regrets, and gave his blessing for new fishing experiences, Black said. Black went on to work on larger vessels in New Bedford.

While the heavy reminders like No Regrets and his job change still weigh on his mind, Black said he takes solace in the support Robyn Gurney has shown him in following in her husband’s footsteps as an Island pot fisherman. The permit equates to making a living, and he is eager to use it. Black could not overestimate how grateful he is to have his friend’s permit.

“This permit is the one that you want if you want to fish Nantucket Sound and Martha’s Vineyard Sound. It’s really a great inshore permit to have. You can make a living just on those three species,” he said, describing channel whelk, black sea bass, and scup as ample and sustainable fisheries.

“I’ll be able to pay off my boat, and hopefully save up enough money so that I can buy my own set of permits in the future, and these permits can get rolled back into the permit bank, you know, leased out to some other fishermen who’s just starting out on the Vineyard. A lot of times these permits get sold and they go to New Bedford or Fairhaven, and they don’t come back,” he said.

Hence a threat to one of the core missions of the trust, board member and founder Wes Brighton pointed out.

Permits are rarer and rarer, Brighton said, in part because “larger industrial models are feasting on the same exact permits that we’re trying to buy.”

Fishing regulation has enhanced this phenomenon, trust members said.

“In essence, what the government has done through these regulations is concentrated the fishing fleet in big ports — New Bedford, Gloucester, Point Judith — and shrunk the fleet in all the little ports, whether it’s Sandwich, or Martha’s Vineyard, or Hyannis, or Chatham. And as that has happened, we recognize that our industry is disappearing — the small boat fishery. All the guys that got cut back sold their permits. Somebody bought the permits, put them together on a big boat, and we have very successful big harbors, and the small harbors are turning into yacht marinas. And that’s what we’re trying to slow down,” board member Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman, said.

As Keene put it, the trust endeavors to restore and sustain small boat fishermen on-Island, and in so doing not only help them prosper, but buoy all the market segments they support like fishmongers, fuel sellers, welders, restaurants, truckers, and the like.

Keene also said the trust is building a revolving fund to help finance fishermen who would otherwise have a hard time getting a loan.

“If you’re a young fisherman and you have a lot of experience, but you don’t have a lot of equity or assets to pledge for the bank, you’re just going to stall out,” he said. The trust could act as a low-interest bank for gear and vessels, he said. “It wouldn’t be a handout, it would be a helpout.”

Board member Katie Carroll described the revolving fund as a tool to preserve heritage. In furtherance of such heritage and the Island economy, she pointed to a mentoring program on the drafting board at the high school. The program aims to link students with Vineyard marine trades, she said.

“What the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust is doing is laudable and very interesting,” Massachusetts Marine Fisheries deputy director Daniel McKiernan said. “They’ve stepped up and worked with us to preserve commercial fishing and fishing infrastructure as a way of life on the Island.”

“The other three [permit] applicants were very supportive of our choice. Consequently we were very excited for them,” Keene said. “And we told them just because they didn’t get this permit doesn’t mean your foot’s not in the door.”

Keene and his fellow board members said the trust encourages support for its continuing quest to foster a healthy small boat fishery on-Island, and expressed deep thanks to those who have donated and continue to donate via their website.
Black, who began fishing as a kid with a skiff in Edgartown using his grandfather’s bay scallop drags, reiterated his gratitude to Robyn Gurney and the trust, and said he’s excited to pot-harvest scup, conch, and bass this season aboard No Regrets. While bass brings in good money and scup is delicious and underrated and he plans to catch both, Black said, it will be conch (channel whelk) that brings home the bacon.

“If you fish conch regularly and methodically, and you do it at the right times of the year, you’re probably going to make dollar for dollar more off the conch than you will off sea bass,” he said. “I hope to, anyway.”