Chilmark redefines the commercial fisherman
Chilmark selectmen have proposed a revised definition of the commercial fisherman as part of a continuing effort by town officials to maintain the working character of Menemsha. The proposal would reduce the current official definition's requirement that 20 percent of a fisherman's annual income must come from fishing.
Fishermen in Menemsha face increasing financial difficulty as do their counterparts in other small fishing communities along the Eastern seaboard as the industry declines. Facing complex and strict regulations aimed at protecting diminished fish stocks and costs that rise more quickly than prices that fishermen command for their catch, it is difficult for a fisherman to earn a living.
Selectman Riggs Parker, chairman of the board and architect of the revised bylaw language, said that federal, state and local regulations have become more rigid, and as a result fewer fishermen qualify for local benefits under the town's prevailing definition.
Selectman Warren Doty, a former fish wholesaler who is familiar with the regulatory side of fishing, agreed. "This new definition will enhance commercial fishing in Menemsha because it opens up commercial fishing to more people," he said.
Chilmark adopted the existing definition of a commercial fisherman at annual town meeting in April 1996. To qualify under this definition, a fisherman must earn a minimum of 20 percent of his total annual income from commercial fishing.
Fishermen said that definition required too high a percentage of gross income to come from fishing. The new definition would require proof of at least six landings per month in at least three different calendar months, all of which would add up to at least $5,000, to show that the fisherman is, and intends to be, an active commercial fisherman.
Under the new rule, a commercial fisherman would also need to provide the town with copies of appropriate commercial fishing permits and intend to fish "commercially for a substantial period in the next 12 months."
Selectmen said the definition will be reviewed annually after a public meeting to ensure that it is realistic under federal, state, and local regulations as they may be amended. Based on the new definition, the town would create a list of those "who shall be entitled to certain privileges relating to town properties which support and enhance commercial fishing in town."
Among these benefits, the town currently leases out space along the bulkhead in Menemsha Basin and on the west side of the basin at very reduced rents to fishermen, fish markets, and a gas station operator in order to support the commercial fishing industry. Depending on the lot and whether there is a building on it, leaseholders pay an annual rent that ranges from $10 to $900. Chilmark currently leases seven of the creek lots for an annual $10 fee.
On the other side of Menemsha Basin, along the town bulkhead, the Chilmark selectmen lease nine lots for between $50 and $900. The highest prices are paid by Stanley Larsen, who leases lot two, formerly Poole's Fishmarket, for $900, and Emmett Carroll, who leases lot nine for $800, where he operates Menemsha Texaco.
Commercial fishermen also receive limited dockage free of charge on the bulkhead in Menemsha. There are also negotiations underway with Menemsha Texaco that could result in the station providing a 20-percent fuel discount to Chilmark commercial fishermen.
"This definition is to clarify who can meet the criteria to apply for lots on town property," said Mr. Parker, "and to clarify who can continue to dock on the bulkhead for free. We want the definition to be realistic, given the difficulties and regulations fishermen in Menemsha face."
Several fishermen reached by The Times said they knew nothing about the revisions to the definition. All of these fishermen asked not to be identified. Some said they were happy to see that the selectmen were making an effort, although they questioned how effective it would be. Others were unhappy.
Stanley Larsen, Chilmark shellfish constable and owner of the Menemsha Fish Market, said the changes would not solve anything. "This bylaw is a way of them practicing a personal victimization. They are scheming trouble by decree. This doesn't address the real problem," he said.
Many fishermen say they are pleased that the selectmen are trying to help, although they do not necessarily believe that this bylaw is a move in the right direction.
Lev Wlodyka, a well-known commercial fisherman and part of the town's younger generation of fishermen, was supportive of the effort. "Menemsha has evolved the way that it has for a reason," he said. "But it's positive that the selectmen are trying to help everybody. It's good to maintain a commercial fishing stronghold. To maintain the opportunity for young people to get involved in the industry. But it is unclear how effective this will be."
Jimmy Morgan, a veteran Menemsha fisherman, said, "They had to do something. I think it's good. Though they have too many regulations. Regulators, especially the Feds, don't have the faintest idea about what is going on."
The sentiment that the selectmen are well intentioned but misguided was echoed by Emmett Carroll, "I don't know why they need this rule to begin with. The status quo has worked here for years." Though Mr. Carroll attended the meetings where the definition was discussed, he called it "a big waste of time. Everybody just yells at each other. I probably won't go to another one."
Some local fishermen expressed skepticism about how much the new bylaw will help and said it does not address the primary issue, which is that fewer Islanders have an interest in making a living on the sea.
"There simply isn't the same level of interest that there used to be in young people," Capt. Dennis Jason Jr., a commercial fisherman, lamented. "No one's going to get into the business because of these new laws. It's people coming up with definitions for the sake of defining things. This is not what fishing is about. They're not looking at the bigger picture."
The selectmen are encouraging fishermen who are concerned about the new language to attend future meetings to discuss the bylaw changes.
"This is just a draft compiled at a meeting of selectmen and fishermen. We put it out because we want people to have a chance to look at it and to get feedback," said Mr. Parker.