Selectmen, fishermen discuss Menemsha's future
Approximately two-dozen fishermen from around the Island gathered late Tuesday in the Chilmark Town Hall meeting room to discuss with town selectmen what might be done to help preserve commercial fishing in Menemsha.
It was a strong turnout of fishermen by Island standards and provided one measure of the interest in recent efforts undertaken by the three Chilmark selectmen to stem the tide that has transformed working harbors along the East Coast into upscale marinas.
The meeting ended with a general agreement on the need to keep working, some specific proposals to better accommodate fishermen in the harbor this season, and an acknowledgement that more time and effort would be needed to find ways to support what remains of the Vineyard's commercial fishing industry.
Greg Skomal, a state Division of Marine Fisheries biologist who lives and works on the Vineyard, assured the selectmen he would speak with state fisheries managers about the regulatory concerns raised by fishermen Tuesday. The selectmen asked Mr. Skomal to help facilitate a future meeting with top DMF officials to discuss their concerns.
The assembled fishermen were a mix of young and old, draggers, pot fishermen and rod and reel bass fishermen, men and woman who rely on the sea for at least part of their living.
Selectman Frank Fenner, chairman of the selectmen, began by announcing that the board was looking for ways to keep Menemsha a viable fishing port and wanted to hear from fishermen about what could be done to facilitate that goal.
The fishermen spoke about the regulations that make it difficult to earn a living and costs that continue to rise faster than the price fishermen receive for their catch. They talked about the challenges they face in bringing their catch to market and what might be done to improve the flow of fish off-Island.
One improvement all the fishermen agreed is needed is a plentiful source of ice. Selectmen said it might be possible to provide space for a private ice operation.
Nick Warburton of West Tisbury, a commercial rod and reel bass fisherman, asked selectmen to find room in the harbor where the dozen or so boats that operate out of the harbor during the commercial bass season could raft together overnight. They agreed to discuss it.
Throughout the meeting, Dennis Jason, Chilmark harbormaster, returned to the same theme. He said the harbor needed a good wholesale buyer who would provide a long-term commitment and had access to markets. He added that price depends on the quality of the product and marketing, which meant that the fishermen would need to handle the fish well.
Stanley Larsen, Chilmark shellfish constable and the owner of a fish market located on one of the town's bulkhead lease lots, and his brother Karsten Larsen, a commercial fisherman who had helped bring local fish to mainland markets in the past, both said they planned to buy fish this summer.
Riggs Parker, a Chilmark selectman, questioned whether other Island fishermen would be interested in coming to Menemsha if a market existed
Donny Benefit of Edgartown said he would gladly bring his catch up-Island. Describing the dilemma he now faced with a catch of seabass, he said that if he utilized an Island wholesaler who specializes mainly in conch the sea bass price was low because of the buyer's limited market connections. A better market price is available in Falmouth, but the cost of fuel to reach the buyer there would eat into his profits, which were already limited by state regulations that restricted the amount of fish he could catch on any one day.
Greg Mayhew, a Menemsha draggerman, said that at one time fishermen could switch from species to species, but that versatility is disappearing under the weight of new fishing restrictions. "The long-term outlook for small boats is not good," he said.
Offering another perspective, Louis Larsen, owner of the Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven and a former commercial fisherman, said he buys fish from the fishermen who provide him with a consistent supply. Mr. Larsen said the high cost of licensing and meeting processing regulations limited his ability to market fish off-Island. "You just can't fillet a fish, stick it in a box and send it to New York," he said.