Commercial fishermen are an independent, self-reliant lot. Men and women who make a living from the sea are familiar with waking early and long hours hauling gear with no one to rely on but themselves. They keep a tight grip on the wheel and on hard-learned fishing information, but are quick to lend a hand when a fisherman is in need, because anyone who spends time on the water knows that one day, he or she could be in the same boat.
The desire for independence that pushes men and women to embrace the life of a commercial fisherman can get in the way of joint efforts by fishermen to protect their livelihood. From time to time, fishermen have banded together to form an organization to represent their interests, but it takes a skilled navigator to steer a course through the political and personal currents when there are more than ten Island fishermen in one room.
The most recent effort came in 2009 with the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association under the framework of Dukes County government. Warren Doty, longtime Chilmark selectman and former Island fish wholesaler, took the helm of the fledgling group and moved it forward.
In June 2010, attorneys with the law firm of Kelley Drye & Warren filed suit on behalf of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound.
In a 16-page complaint, attorneys David Frulla and Shaun Gehan said the Cape Wind energy project would effectively end all commercial fishing on Horseshoe Shoal — prime, historic fishing grounds for Vineyard fishermen.
Two years later, in June 2012, Mr. Doty announced that the Fishermen’s Association had reversed its position, and agreed to support the Cape Wind project “as a sustainable source of clean energy for the future” in exchange for a payout, the amount of which was shielded by a confidentiality agreement.
In a story published Sept. 4, “Island fishermen’s groups steer different courses,” Steve Myrick was able to slightly pry the lid off the confidentiality agreement and report that the settlement deal calls for Cape Wind to pay the Menemsha Fishermen’s Preservation Trust Inc., renamed the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust (MVFPT), in order to handle the proceeds of the settlement, $250,000 when project financing is in place, and an additional $1 million once permitting for the wind farm is complete.
Mr. Doty told Mr. Myrick the organization had run up $125,000 in legal bills and had no choice but to settle. He said he had signed a nondisclosure settlement that prohibited parties to the deal from talking about it. Mr. Doty, citing the confidentiality agreement, refused to describe the financial arrangement with Cape Wind to Mr. Myrick.
The MVFPT’s stated and laudable goal is to use the money to create a permiting bank that can be used to help and sustain the Island fishing industry.
Confidentiality agreements may be standard tools for private individuals and companies that want to shield information from the public. But Mr. Doty, a selectman, operating under the umbrella of Dukes County at the time, made a bad decision. It was wrong not to reveal the details of the agreement. The fishermen and members of the public that supported the Fishermen’s Association in the lawsuit ought to have been told the details of the payout.
The Dukes County Commissioners, who lent the county imprimatur to the Fishermen’s Association, ought to have insisted on disclosure but ignored their responsibility and chose to say nothing on the topic at the time.
The notion that the Association had no choice but to capitulate and settle because they had racked up significant legal bills is hard to understand. The time to have thought about how they were going to pay those legal bills was before they signed on to a lawsuit engineered by a Washington law office.
The deal created hard feelings around the Island waterfront — that part of it that extends beyond Menemsha to Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown harbors. That is unfortunate. The MVFPT was created to support Island commercial fishing interests. It is time for MVFPT leaders to cast a wider net and gain the trust and support of fishermen who feel left out.
Those who cheer for the little guy should not be comforted at the thought that a small Island group of fishermen tapped Cape Wind for $1.25 million. Whatever the actual payout amount, it is the ratepayers of Massachusetts that will underwrite the costs of this settlement and of a deal Cape Wind cut with the Department of the Interior that will enrich the Mashpee and Wampanoag tribes, who claimed that the wind farm would interfere with their view of the rising sun, an important element in tribal ceremonies.