Scarce groundfish permit will remain on Martha’s Vineyard

Captain Greg Mayhew, shown aboard the fishing vessel Unicorn, has tied up at the dock for good, but his fishing permit will enable Islanders to continue to seek a living from the sea. — Martha's Vineyard Times file pho

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) last week announced that in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, it had purchased the Island’s last historic groundfish permit from Greg Mayhew, owner of the 75-foot dragger Unicorn.

A recent decline in New England groundfish populations has forced some fishermen to sell their permits, opening them up to buyers from outside their respective communities. The purchase is intended to protect the Island’s last remaining permit, and provide future opportunities for the next generation of local fishermen.

“Groundfish is not particularly profitable right now, so people are selling their permits, and the only real buyers are corporations willing to speculate,” Conservancy Marine Program Director Chris McGuire said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “Our goal is to transfer them to an organization like the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, which will keep them in the community.”

The government allocates the amount of each species that can be caught on an annual basis. Fishing permits allow the owner a percent of that allocated catch. Groundfishing permits regulate 19 species, including cod, haddock, flounder, and fluke. The permits can range in cost from a few thousand dollars for a small permit to $2 million for a large permit that includes scalloping rights.

As the permits are not tied to a specific geographic location, “selling a permit means the permit may leave the community,” the Conservancy’s senior media relations manager, James Miller, said in a press release.

Mr. Mayhew did not want that to happen, but fishing was getting tough.

“It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to keep fishing, partly because of regulations and partly because I’m getting older,” he said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “I didn’t want to see the permit go to a conglomerate that already had 25. I want to see fishing continue in Menemsha, so it’s not just a place you go to see sailboats, but somewhere you can get fresh fish and not truck it in from somewhere else, not knowing what you’re getting.”

Mr. Mayhew heard about the Conservancy’s plans for a permit bank when he spoke with a broker about selling his permit while keeping it in the Island community.

Before he could sell it to the Conservancy, however, Mr. Mayhew was obligated by regulation to offer the permit to the fishing sector it belonged to: Penobscot Bay in Maine. The sector didn’t want to buy it, however, and Mr. Mayhew went ahead with the Conservancy. He said a conglomerate might have paid in the ballpark of $150,000 for the permit; he and Mr. McGuire were unwilling to disclose the amount TNC paid.

“Even if we couldn’t get as much from the Conservancy as we could have from a conglomerate, I want to see some of the young guys trying to make it fishing here get a chance to get in, and keep Menemsha a viable fishing community,” Mr. Mayhew said.

He hopes the permit bank can acquire other permits in addition to the permit he sold, permits he expects will increase in value as the fisheries grow in size. His permit sale to the Conservancy included an offshore lobster license.

“My allocation was not particularly large,” he said.

The allocation for a permit is based on how many pounds of species the owner landed during qualifying years in the early 1990s. Values such as “0.000625% of total allocation” are a common measurement of how much of the annual species allocation the holder can catch. As a result, Mr. Mayhew this year would have been allocated several thousand pounds of yellowtail and flounder, as well as something in the range of 100,000 pounds of squid, “but only about 20 pounds of pollock,” he said, since he “hardly reported any during the qualifying period.”

Now the Conservancy will lease out that allocation at discounted rates to Island fishermen, in exchange for their use of sustainable fishing practices and participation in scientific studies.

“We encourage them to participate in research and use more sustainable gear,” said Mr. McGuire. “Seven to eight years from now, the fisheries will have rebounded, and we will not charge more for the permit than we bought it for, which is a good deal for the community. We assume all the downside risk. This is a conservation and community benefit. It’s good for small fishing business, it’s good for community access to the fishery, and it’s good for traditional fishermen.”

As the Conservancy is a nonprofit, any money it receives from leasing out the permit will go back to the fund instead of becoming what Mr. McGuire called “captured revenue” for a corporation.

“This is a forward-looking move,” he said, seconding Mr. Mayhew’s hope that the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust will increase the size of its permit bank.

“We’ll reach out to other permit holders based on the need out there in the fishing community,” Preservation Trust Treasurer Shelley Edmundson said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “We have to really work with the fishermen. This is the first permit we have, a permit that was going to be lost. Holding onto it is a good starting point, laying the foundation for more permits. Over the next 3 years, the fisheries will rebuild, then we’ll see.”

Ms. Edmundson encouraged community members to attend a “Meet the Fleet” event on the Menemsha waterfront on Thursday, August 6, between 4 and 7 pm, to learn more. “There will be a bunch of community fishermen along the docks, showing their traps and gear and answering questions,” she said.