The Massachusetts Environmental Police command a higher profile on Martha’s Vineyard than they do in most Massachusetts communities — hunting, recreational, and commercial fishing, shellfishing, boating, and environmental awareness are mainstays of Vineyard culture. The environmental police Coastal Force also monitors fish markets, processing facilities, and oversand vehicles.
The environmental police officer (EPO) is the boots on the ground responsible for enforcing the law. Islanders can call the environmental police for a wide range of issues — a derelict boat at a public launch ramp, illegal fishing or hunting activity, or even dirt bike riding. There was a time when Islanders knew their environmental police officer, in part because the officer lived here. But that hasn’t been the case since Environmental Police Officer Matt Bass was reassigned in 2012.
For the past five years, the critical role has been filled by “one and done” off-Island commuters, interspersed with long stretches with no officer specifically assigned to the Martha’s Vineyard, resulting in patchwork patrolling from Cape-based units.
Last July, newly minted Environmental Police Sgt. Mike Silba began his Island assignment, following an 18-month period during which the Vineyard was wIthout a full-time assigned officer. His commute began with a 45-minute drive to Falmouth.
He left several months after taking the position.
Since then, the state car, parked in the Owen Park parking lot, has become a fixture there.
Concern about the lack of an environmental police presence on the Vineyard has been growing for some time.
“Since Matt Bass was our [environmental police officer], we have had only sporadic contact with his successors,” Adam Moore, executive director of Sheriff’s Meadow, told The Times. Sheriff’s Meadow is one of the largest landowners on the Island, with 2,900 acres of wilderness under its stewardship.
“The problem with inconsistent EPO coverage is a big concern of ours. There are probably few places in the commonwealth with a greater need for an EPO than Martha’s Vineyard. We have a strong hunting community, saltwater and freshwater fishing, many kinds of rare species, both plant and animal, marine issues, and boating issues and more.”
Chappaquiddick is a hub for activity that comes under the aegis of the environmental police — it has the Island’s only oversand vehicle activity, it’s a fishing and shellfishing hotspot in the summer, and its hefty deer population attracts hunters in the winter. It is also home to rare animal species that require human protection. But The Trustees of Reservations Martha’s Vineyard executive director Chris Kennedy said EPO presence on Chappy has been minimal, at best, in recent years.
“I never met Sgt. Silba,” he said. “The Trustees are one of the biggest landowners on the Island, and generally we get to know our EPOs pretty well. Up until the past five or six years, we’ve had really good working relationships, but since then it’s been hit or miss. It was a much different story with EPOs like Matt Bass and Bill Searle.”
For almost three decades, William “Bill” Searle patrolled the woods and water beat on the Vineyard. A resident of Edgartown, he was a fixture in the community, and worked closely with Island sportsmen and police departments. After 26 years, Sgt. Searle retired in 2004.
In an interview prior to leaving his job and the Island, Sgt. Searle told The Times the biggest challenge his replacement would face would be winning the trust and support of the community. That included the Island police he or she must work with, and more important, the hunters and fishermen an environmental police officer comes in contact with on a regular basis.
“Developing working relationships with those people is a key element of the job,” he said. “The job is not strictly about enforcement. In my own opinion, I think this job involves a tremendous amount of education.”
MV a priority for MEP
On Monday, Environmental Police Maj. Patrick Moran told The Times that since Sgt. Silba left, the environmental police have maintained a steady presence in and around the Vineyard. “Even though there hasn’t been a full-time, Island-based [officer], we have had people going to the Vineyard at least two to three times a week,” he said. “If not a land-based guy from the Upper Cape, then our patrol boats have made regular trips there.”
Maj. Moran said a new officer — Sgt. Ted Whitney — began his Martha’s Vineyard assignment this week. He will commute from Falmouth four days a week. Cape-based boats will also be patrolling Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound.
“Having an officer on Martha’s Vineyard is a priority for [environmental police director Col. James] McGinn,” Maj. Moran said. “He calls me twice a week at least, making sure someone is over there. There’s always been someone there.”
A staffing shortage is currently stretching manpower to the limit, Maj. Moran said. “I can say that as an agency we are more short-staffed than normal due to retirements and lack of hires … It’s a lengthy process to promote someone. You have to understand that the people we’re sending over there have a district to cover on the mainland. Sgt. Whitney’s promotion will leave five or six communities on the Lower Cape without an officer. Someone benefits and someone loses. Until we can get more bodies, this is how it’s going to be.”
According to the state comptroller’s office, the Environmental Police budget went from $10.03 million in 2016 to $9.9 million in 2017. Fiscal year 2018 proposed spending is $10.08 million.
Despite the lack of an on-Island Environmental Police officer, Maj. Moran said, commercial and recreational fishing has been closely monitored by the department.
“There can’t be a complaint for lack of enforcement; our boats are out off the Vineyard constantly,” he said. “Fishermen are getting checked constantly.”
Not surprisingly, opinions differ.
An Island conch fisherman who asked not to be identified said he thinks there has been a noticeable drop-off in environmental police presence since Matt Bass departed.
“Matt was on it. He checked us often. It didn’t matter if you were his friend, he’d still write you a citation,” he said.
But Fishsticks Charters Capt. Kurt Freund told The Times he’s seen a steady presence of environmental police in Vineyard waters in recent years, and he had just been boarded that day.
“He was very professional about it. I only had one fish at the time, he boarded, measured it, and that was that,” he said.
Hampered by housing
Echoing a familiar refrain, Maj. Moran said housing prices on Martha’s Vineyard also make it difficult to appoint an on-Island EPO.
“The lack of housing on the Vineyard is a big setback,” he said. “We have in the past and continue to be searching for quarters that the officer and their family can call home and be an integral part of the Island community. That is difficult to do with a commuting officer, but I think Sgt. Whitney will do his best to make himself accessible to the [Island] residents and visitors.”
An environmental police sergeant’s base salary is about $62,609. A sergeant in the Oak Bluffs Police Department makes about $100,000.
“Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation would be happy to work with the state on this,” Mr. Moore said. “I think that the state ought to consider building staff housing at the State Forest or at the Lobster Hatchery, or on another state property.”