The Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust has embarked on a major campaign to garner funds for the acquisition of permits and quotas that have become unobtainable on the Vineyard due to fisheries consolidation and high buy-in prices.
The Times recently met with founder and commercial fisherman Wes Brighton, executive director Shelley Edmundson, and president John Keene, owner of the Vineyard’s largest excavation company. Long a recreational fisherman, Keene came close to becoming a Menemsha harpooner before beginning work with heavy excavation machinery.
The three said the trust is hungry for permits but, heartbreakingly, has had to pass up a number of acquisition opportunities because it could not muster the capital in time to buy what was on offer. In order to be able to act on various permits that would more land fish on-Island and the economic benefits that come with them, the trust needs funding.
“We’re not trying to make an artificially propped-up industry,” Keene said. “We’re trying to jump-start something that is self-sustaining.” Keene said the fishing industry is thriving. A lot of its health is due to severe restriction put in place in the 1990s, when stocks were at their nadir. Unfortunately, he said, past collapse of stocks and tough conservation measures not only ground many Vineyard fishermen out of the trade, but sent their permits into the hands of deep-pocketed corporations that now control far more of the industry than sole proprietors and other small-time operators. Stocks have rebounded, Keene said, but the Island fishing community has not.
“I think some people think it has become so hopeless, why would you support this?” he asked. “You’re not going to make ends meet. It’s not going to work out. I think it’s important for people to understand that that’s not what we’re all about.”
“That narrative isn’t right. It’s not a dying industry,” Edmundson said.
“I people think that there’s no more fish. From overfishing, fishermen have ruined [the stocks] — fishing’s dead. And it’s not. People are making a ton of money,” Brighton said. “But the problem is, to make a ton of money you need to be able to leave the dock. And you can’t do that without permits. Permits cost a lot of money.”
Brighton then clarified that the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust is offering opportunities, not handouts.
Qualified, well-scrutinized applicants get their permits amortized. They pay market price to the trust, but they don’t have to pay a lump sum, which is something banks seldom allow especially to start up or re-up fishermen without sizable assets as collateral. Not so with the trust.
“Fishermen are contributing to their local economy wherever they land,” Keene said. He went on to say he wants more fishermen landing on the Vineyard, where not just the fisherman and the fishmonger profit, but welders, fuel sellers, grocery stores, outfitters, mechanics, and ice sellers also can profit.
As an example of how costly permits are, Brighton said, the big scallop boats Vineyarders see cruising past the Island from New Bedford en route to the open Atlantic hold permits worth about $6.5 million apiece.
“That’s something people should understand; there’s no reason a permit would be worth $6.5 million if you weren’t going to make a lot of money on those permits.”
“Along with the permits, we need to have infrastructure at the harbors to make sure the business can be supported here. Like ice plants, like ice machines and dock space and gin booms, so you can unload your catch,” Edmundson said. “If we don’t have those bits here, even if we have the permits, people aren’t going to be able to operate, so we have to build that too.”
Keene said the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust is hoping to hear from two types of donors. First the traditional type, who will give flatly and aid in the acquisition of permits as well as helping the trust with its other munificent goals. Second, he said, they are looking for donors who need not give anything up front, but are willing to pledge certain sums and be on call for when the trust has a permit opportunity to act on.
Anyone interested in contributing to the Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, a 501(c)(3) organization, is encouraged to contact Shelley Edmundson at 508-687-0344.