Edgartown commercial fisherman continue to adjust to new realities

The number of fishing vessels with Martha’s Vineyard home ports is on the decline, but those remaining at the helm persevere.

Amid yachts and pleasure boats, commercial fishing boats continue to cling to a corner of Edgartown Harbor. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Edgartown’s commercial trap fishing industry is tough work. It is evident as much in the number of working boats and fishermen seeking conch and sea bass as it is anecdotally. Those fishermen who remain put in long days and work under strict quotas and regulations. However, fishing is all they’ve done for most of their lives, and they say they are committed to riding out what wave is left of the local industry.

Island landings of channeled whelk, commonly referred to as conch, the most lucrative species caught in Island waters, are valued at more than $2 million each year since 2011, according to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

Behind conch are oysters, with Martha’s Vineyard landings valued at $1.3 million in 2014. There is one important distinction. Unlike conch, which are  wild-caught, oysters are for the most part raised in the protected waters of Island bays and ponds. Bay scallops, which are propagated as part of an extensive taxpayer-supported program, accounted for just over $700,000.

Even as conch fishing holds steady, the number of commercial fishermen registered as Island residents has started to decline, according to the DMF. In 2008, there were 360 registered Vineyard commercial fishermen. As of 2015, there are 263.

“Conch fishing is tough fishing,” commercial fisherman Tom Turner of Edgartown said as he replaced lost or damaged sea bass traps aboard his boat, the Sea Raven, docked at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown on a hot and sunny August afternoon.

The commercial sea bass season is short. Fishermen can only go out three days a week: Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and each day they fish, they’re allowed to catch no more than 300 pounds of sea bass, Mr. Turner said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sets quotas and updates fishermen as they change.

“There’s a very small state allocation or quota,” he said. “There’s an entire fisheries quota, and each state was given a percentage, so that we get a set number of pounds a year. All landings are closely monitored, and when we start getting close to the quota, they start to close the fisheries.”

The sea bass he catches, he said, he sells to a Menemsha dealer.

Mr. Turner, 64, has been fishing commercially since he was 20 years old, which gives him more than 40 years of experience on the water. He works from 7 am to 3 pm on fishing days, which he describes as “banker’s hours.” His fishing season is from May until Thanksgiving. In the off-season, he runs a sawmill.

“When I started fishing, I did a lot of in-shore fishing, like for scallops. A really good year that I remember, there were almost 180 licenses that were getting their limits, daily, of scallops,” he said. “If you weren’t catching them, you were cutting them.”

Mr. Turner spoke as he continued to tend to his gear. “I caught my first fish when I was 5 years old, with my mom,” he said. “That was it.”

Mr. Turner was born on the Island, where he and his wife, Cynthia Harris, also raised their two sons. His dad had a dairy farm, and his mother was a “summer girl,” he said. He fished all his life, and it was in the 1970s that Mr. Turner decided that commercial fishing was for him.

“The fishermen were making more money than the farmers,” he said. He doesn’t believe that’s the case anymore.

On a summer day in August, the recreational boats in Edgartown harbor far outnumber the fishing boats.

“We’ve had to work to keep this little dock and the parking spots,” Mr. Turner said of the small area sandwiched between the wharf and private docks. “Even though this property was gifted to the town with the express purpose that it be used for commercial fishing … It’s not that anymore, but at least we get a little edge of it.”

There are six commercial trap fishing vessels that call Edgartown homeport as of this summer, according to Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair. There are three spots at Memorial Wharf, and the rest have to moor their boats elsewhere.

Changing atmosphere

Mr. Turner said maintaining a harbor foothold and a business depends on mutual respect among fishermen and the town.

“During the tourist season, you could get one boat that doesn’t really pay attention or care about it, and it’s nasty if they don’t clean out at the end of the day,” he said of the potential odors that sometimes bother passersby. In a community whose economy depends upon tourists, the opinions of passersby can sometimes have clout.

Over the years, he said, town support for commercial fishing has swayed between supportive and less than that.

“We’ve had some leaders who weren’t real fond of commercial fishing,” he said. “[Fishing] was what their grandfathers did. They may not have liked cutting scallops after school, but it’s what it is.”

Mr. Turner said his favorite part of fishing is the hunt. Sometimes on off days, he fishes for fun. But his days are shorter than some of his peers, who have 18-hour workdays.

“I’m kind of in the bottom of the ninth here,” he said. “I could have been collecting Social Security for quite a while if I’d paid enough into it.”

At one point he had almost 1,000 traps and sold to four different fisheries.

“Back in the day when I was fishing, we had pots on for a whole bunch of fisheries, and it was just like, ‘Which pots are we gonna haul today?’ Weather permitting, we sometimes went 30 days in a row.”

Conch capitol

Edgartown commercial fisherman Donny Benefit said he doesn’t see any new fishermen joining the ranks down at the harbor anymore.

“They’d be fools,” he said in a phone conversation with The Times. “How are you going to make a boat payment? Go look at the catches.”

Mr. Benefit has fished since he was 6 years old, he said. When he was young, he said, “I caught all the codfish I wanted.”

Once he graduated from high school, Mr. Benefit started swordfishing, making trips up to Newfoundland and sometimes down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now Mr. Benefit fishes for conch, though he takes all of his gear out of the water in August.

“August is the time they’re having babies,” he said. “I’d rather let them do what they wanna do so maybe I’ll have more later.”

Instead, he spends the month with his family, tuna fishing offshore and taking his 12-year-old daughter, Michaela, out bluefishing. She sells her catch for money to spend at the Ag Fair.

“She’s a very good fisherman. Better than most guys,” he said.

But at the end of the month, Mr. Benefit will be back to his traps, which he said haven’t been very fruitful in recent months.

“Conching is terrible [this summer],” he said. “Conch is way down — just check the landings. Compared to what I used to catch? It’s in half.”

He said he’s not sure what the problem is.

“There’s been a lot of people fishing on them, but 15 years ago, there was a year we didn’t catch crab,” he said. “We don’t have that much information on them. Five or six years ago, it was considered a predator.”

However, Mr. Benefit contends that Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are likely the conch capitol of the world, despite the fact that it’s rarely, if ever, served locally. He estimated that 90 percent of the conch Island fishermen catch makes its way to China. A little bit, he said, goes to Canada.

“Everyone asks where our fresh local seafood is,” he said. “I say it’s on the way to China.”

Exporting such a distance drives the cost up, which benefits fishermen. The financial promise is what drew Mr. Benefit to conch, when he was done swordfishing and couldn’t make money quahogging.

Though he works long days — he leaves at 3 am and returns at 4 pm — Mr. Benefit said he’s home every night. He also praised what he considers to be the fishing-friendly environment in Edgartown.

“The town of Edgartown, to me, takes care of their commercial fishing. And they’re really parking-friendly,” he said, a reference to the spots that the town reserves for fishermen at Memorial Wharf.

That being said, however, Mr. Benefit maintains a sobering pragmatism about the local industry.

“You can’t really support a family,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well, but I’ve been doing it long enough that I kind of know where they live.”

It’s cutthroat

As with many Island trades, commercial fishing is mostly a seasonal occupation. Very few Edgartown commercial trap fishermen are on the water year-round. Some fish for periods as short as 60 days, then work at other occupations in the off-season, such as Mr. Turner and his sawmill.

“It’s gone down the tubes,” Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair said. “This place used to be filled with whale ships, schooners, and cod fishing boats. It’s all dead. These guys are the last hanging on.”

Those who are left, especially the trap fishermen, remain independent.

“They hate each other. If you’re trap fishing and your boat breaks down, you don’t think the other guys leave your traps alone, do you? It’s a war. Every day is a war for these guys. They get up early, they go in the darkness; once in a while they’ll tow each other home. That’s about it,” said Mr. Blair.  He commercially fished until 1994, when he was named harbormaster.

He underscored that it’s not all the fishermen who don’t get along, and that, for example, the “oyster guys” work together. Trap fishermen, however, argue over where traps are going, and sometimes accuse one another of stealing ground.

It’s particularly brutal, Mr. Blair said, when draggers “get in their gear and break it all up.”

Still, he said, the job has its perks.

“You still get in a boat, and don’t have to go through Five Corners in the middle of the day.”

Mr. Blair is blunt about the industry of Edgartown harbor. “We’re in a yachting, tourist industry,” he said. “Let’s just get that right out.”

At the end of the season, his staff drops from 19 to just four people, a reflection of the focus.

“Darn few guys are year-round; even the guys who have made their living for 30 years are now preparing their rental properties for the next year. You look at the tax return, fishing isn’t it … Fishing is sad. You can’t make a living. You’ve got to do something else.”