Fishing association dinner provides food for thought

Alec Gale, holding his seven-month-old son, Riley, represents a new generation of Island fishermen. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Home Port restaurant in Menemsha hosted a dinner last Wednesday for the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. A nucleus of the up-Island fleet and associated supporters were on hand for an evening that provided me with an opportunity to hear what the organization is doing to advance commercial fishing interests and speak with men, and a few women, carving out a living on the water.

Remarks by one speaker, a well-known charter captain, also highlighted the mistrust that often bubbles up over the topic of gamefish status for striped bass.

On May 10, fewer than a dozen fishermen attended a meeting of the Mass Marine Fisheries Commission in Vineyard Haven. Generally, it can be tough to get fishermen to attend a meeting when there is not a hot issue on the table — hot chowder, no problem. Last Wednesday, the chowder, along with tasty fried fluke and blueberry pie proved to be just the draw for dragger men, charter captains, and a fishing columnist.

Dukes County officials also turned out in full force. I considered sitting at their table, but it seemed too cruel and somewhat risky should I choke on an oyster cracker and require the Heimlich, so I sat down next to Rick Sylvia of West Tisbury, his wife, Caitlin, and their three-month-old son, Rowan.

Islanders, they represent a new generation tied to the fortunes of the commercial fishing industry. Rick has worked as a stone mason and commercially fished for bass. Currently, he works for Alec Gale and his partner, Tim Broderick, owners of the Menemsha Fish House located on the harbor.

“The main point is to keep local fish here,” he told me about the business now housed in a refurbished fish shack next to Larsen’s. The fluke on the menu was evidence of the effort.

Alec Gale, holding his young son in his lap and seated at the table behind me, said he had been operating a buy boat for seven years out of Menemsha. “I used to bass fish and we always had trouble getting rid of them,” he said.

The season would open, the Island market would be flooded and fishermen would have no outlet. Alec bought Karsten Larsen’s old boat and began running fish over to New Bedford buyers.

That initiative is what led to the Menemsha Fish House and a working partnership with a Boston fish buyer, Jared Auerbach. The goal is to build a business that provides a conduit between Island fishermen and the Vineyard and mainland markets, he said.

It was the fourth year in a row that Bob and Sarah Nixon, seasonal residents and owners of the Menemsha Inn, the Beach Plum Inn and the restaurant — pretty much the commercial tourist infrastructure of the town — have hosted the fishermen’s association.

Sarah stepped to the front and spoke about the couple’s committment to the community and the Island’s fishing industry, which extends to their choice of menu items. “We are happy to be here,” she said, “and we are happy to support you.”

Ms. Nixon added that it is important to her and her husband who is catching the fish, where they are catching the fish, and how it is being caught.

Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and association president, presided over the more formal aspects of the evening. In between courses he introduced a number of guests, including mainland commercial fishermen, scattered around the Home Port’s spacious dining room and asked various attendees to describe their efforts on behalf of fishermen.

The list included the use of the Wampanoag hatchery to restore winter flounder to Menemsha Pond as part of a collaboration with the University of New Hampshire, and a project to assist fishermen in acquiring permits and capital.

Conch is one of the Island’s cash export crops. Shelley Edmundson of Vineyard Haven, a young biologist in a doctorate program at the University of New Hampshire, described her conch research project. Last year, she tagged 2,000 conch as part of a study of movement and growth. She received 46 tags back.

She has resumed her study this year. She asked fishermen present to assist her in the recovery of tagged conch. “I am in the process of developing a conch camera to see what is happening in the traps,” she said. “So that might be interesting.”

Wes Brighton spoke about the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, an entity that would act as a permit bank that could help fishermen acquire permits, much the way some organizations provide affordable housing though lease options. “It is still in the beginning stages,” Mr. Brighton said.

On Tuesday, the association and Cape Wind Associates anounced a settlement of the association’s lawsuit against the wind farm that will help fund the permit bank.

Patrick Shepard and Aaron Dority traveled from Maine to describe the work of Penobscot East, an organization that helps young fishermen enter the groundfish industry. Mr. Shepard said that amid bleak news his organization is looking for the opportunities that do exist.

“What the project hopes to accomplish is to provide fishermen who want to get into the industry with some business planning advice to hopefully develop a smarter business plan for their fishery moving forward,” he said.

“Most of these guys don’t have $100,000 to dump on a groundfish permit and that is prohibitive on its own,” Mr. Shepard said. “Providing business planning advice for fishermen, meeting with them one on one to establish what their current business looks like, what they want to see that business do in the next three to five years, and hopefully get them the permits and get them the quotas to get them fishing.”

Mr. Doty said that part of his group’s mission is to represent fishermen and fishermen’s causes. He introduced William “Buddy” Vanderhoop, a Menemsha charter captain to speak about lobbying efforts.

Buddy spoke about his trip to Beacon Hill to speak in opposition to a bill that would have given gamefish status to striped bass and the need to protect herring from large factory ships. He has a well-deserved reputation for catching large striped bass and giving his clients an entertaining experience with the Gay Head cliffs for a backdrop.

But sometimes his knack for hyperbole gets the best of him. Buddy described the proponents of the gamefish measure as “a bunch of fly fishermen from Maine who don’t want striper fishermen to make a living.”

It was a sweeping and unfair characterization. The men and women of the Maine-based nonprofit Stripers Forever are not all fly fishermen and their motivation is to protect the striped bass.

I happen to think that it makes more sense to work together to protect the resource for recreational and commercial fishermen, rather than fighting over a smaller and smaller slice of the pie.

Rather than worry about some fly fishermen from Maine, I worry about what is going on in the Chesapeake Bay, a major striped bass nursery.

Not too long ago, an Interstate Watershed Task Force in the Chesapeake conducted a multi-year, multi-jurisdictional investigation on illegal striped bass harvest that resulted in over $1.6 million dollars in fines levied against 19 individuals and three corporations for harvesting more than one million pounds of illegal striped bass, estimated to be worth up to seven million dollars.

News like that, not an interest in taking away someone’s livelihood, is what motivates supporters of gamefish status.