Chilmark meeting stirs bouillabaisse of Menemsha fishing issues
Combine three Chilmark selectmen, an irate "Cricker" named Karsten Larsen, a roomful of Menemsha commercial fishermen, local fish market owners, historical rivalries, and a Vineyard Gazette news story that reported that town officials are exploring the idea of bringing in an off-Island fish dealer to set up shop on the dock.
That's a recipe for a hyper-animated discussion of the issues affecting commercial fishermen in traditional fishing ports like Menemsha and other small fishing communities along the Eastern seaboard.
Although much of the discussion at a special Tuesday afternoon selectmen's meeting focused on the availability of wholesale outlets for fishermen who choose to unload in Menemsha, there was also talk about the costs and complexity of complying with state and federal regulations, the day-to-day struggles with weather and equipment and the underlying challenge of how to preserve the character of Menemsha.
The meeting was sparked when the Vineyard Gazette reported last week that the selectmen had spoken with Kevin Conroy, a seasonal Chilmark resident who operates a restaurant and seafood wholesale business in Connecticut, about ways he might help market fish brought in to Menemsha.
The town currently leases out space along the bulkhead and creek specifically to fishermen, fish markets and a gas station operator to support the commercial fishing industry. Depending on the lot and whether there is a building on it, lease holders are charged an annual rent of $10, $50, $200, $800, or, in the case of Stanley Larsen, who bought the former Poole's Fish Market, $900. According to town records, there are several vacant lots.
Karsten Larsen, who had acted as a middleman in the past transporting fish to markets in New Bedford by boat, asked to meet with the selectmen and encouraged other Menemsha fishermen to attend.
On Tuesday, about a dozen local fishermen crowded into the selectmen's meeting room. An angry Mr. Larsen, waving a folded Gazette in his hand like a baton, alternately chastised the selectmen for contemplating bringing in an outside fish dealer and appealed to the other fishermen in the room to withstand changes he feared would overtake his home port.
Mr. Larsen attacked the selectmen for comments attributed to them in the Gazette story and disputed the idea that local fishermen and dealers were unable to provide a market outlet. He accused the selectmen of dealing behind his back and not involving local fishermen.
Mr. Larsen, who holds a lease on one of the town lots along the harbor bulkhead for which he currently pays $50 per year, said he had planned to erect a building and buy fish this season but was concerned about how the selectmen's future plans might affect his business.
Asked about when he would present a business plan, Mr. Larsen told the selectmen he had planned to present one to them, but became so angry after reading the Gazette story that he had torn it up into small pieces and fed it to his dog.
Frank Fenner, chairman of the selectmen, cautioned Mr. Larsen not to base his views on one story in the Gazette. Repeatedly, Mr. Fenner attempted to move Mr. Larsen off the subject of the news story and asked him to describe what he could do to help provide a market for local fish.
"Can you get past that article?" asked Mr. Fenner.
"No, I can't," said Mr. Larsen.
Asked by Mr. Fenner if he had something productive to say, Mr. Larsen said that he was a commercial fisherman "100 percent" and took the talk of bringing in someone from the outside as a threat. "I make my living off the [Vineyard] Sound, I make my living off the [Menemsha] Pond," he said.
The selectmen assured Mr. Larsen and the others in the room that they shared the same goal, the preservation of Menemsha's character and its fishermen.
Warren Doty, who once operated a fish wholesale business in Vineyard Haven, said that he had heard from fishermen about their difficulties selling fish last summer and thought it was a problem that needed to be addressed.
He said the selectmen had made no promises to anyone. Riggs Parker, a selectman, said the selectmen were committed to a public process. He said the way to preserve Menemsha as a fishing port was to make sure fish could be moved off the dock.
Mr. Larsen said that as a struggling commercial fisherman, he is at the bottom of the food chain. "Where's it end?" he asked.
Mr. Fenner said the way to preserve Menemsha as a viable fishing port was to provide a reliable means of getting fish to market. Dennis Jason, Chilmark harbormaster, said he and not the selectmen had first approached Mr. Conroy about ways he might help the town and fill a void.
Speaking from a buyer's perspective, Louie Larsen, owner of The Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven, said he had tried to buy fish in Menemsha, but that the fishermen were extremely difficult to deal with. He said that if there were more dependability and some accommodations for loading he would be willing to help fishermen dispose of their catches.
Isaiah Scheffer, who works seasonally at his family's Larsen's Fish Market in Menemsha, said that the market did as much as it could to purchase product locally. He said that Larsen's had purchased thousands of pounds of fish last season but was limited by the size of their building.
Jonathan Mayhew, who operates a dragger and often unloads in New Bedford, said he had been unable to consistently find a buyer in Menemsha, and no one had stepped forward to buy fluke locally.
Stanley Larsen, Chilmark shellfish constable, who was also there to meet with the selectmen, said he also planned to purchase fish this coming season. Mr. Larsen said the fishermen could not just point fingers at each other and the selectmen and pass responsibility to somebody else.
Talking about the difficulties involved, he said in order to sell eels he needed to wade through 51 pages of regulations. "Anybody fishing here knows his or her fortune can be made or lost in a week," he said.
The meeting's participants made no decisions except to keep talking. Mr. Fenner said he was pleased by the good turnout. "We are really all in this together," he said.