Unmoored and unsure, fishermen make do

Direct boat sales stem the tide for some.

Oyster cages on the West Dock in Menemsha. — Rich Saltzberg

On Saturday, folks came to Menemsha to buy directly off the decks of local scallop boats. Business was brisk. Captain Sam Hopkins, aboard the Endurance, mongered to a steady queue of masked customers. Like the nearby Martha Rose, sea scallops off the Endurance sold for $15 per pound. 

“It was really nice to have some local support and have people who bought scallops right off the boat,” Hopkins said. 

Lobsterman Jason Gale has also turned to direct boat sales. From the deck of the Watch Out at Lake Street Landing he sold lobsters at $8 apiece, regardless of weight, on Saturday. Gale said he put a 10 lobster cap per customer and sold out. 

“I’ll just keep going as long as people want them,” he said. 

Gale said the wholesale price was roughly $5.50 to $6 per pound

That jibes with an estimate from Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. 

Casoni said the price had dipped as low as $2.50 but is up to $5.50. 

She said her organization is boosting the concept of “buy direct” and has worked with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to waive the fee for lobster boats to acquire permits to sell that way. 

“It’s been working out well,” she said.

Acting DMF director Dan McKiernan said amidst the industry turmoil the pandemic has caused, an unanticipated “great opportunity” for folks to buy local has arisen. McKiernan noted that  some seafood previously difficult to purchase locally because it was sent to other markets can be accessed within many Massachusetts communities now. 

“Maybe it brings people back to simplicity — like farmers’ markets on the water,” Gale said.  Many lobstermen have taken the economic downtime created by the pandemic to haul their vessels out and work on them, she said. Among the first were the largest types of lobster boats, who can haul 20,000 pounds at a time. The market couldn’t accept that volume, she said. 

Overall, the economic landscape is “an unknown going forward,” she said. Once the shelter-in-place advisory ends, it’s anyone’s guess if the governor will extend it and when restaurants do open back up, she said it’s unclear who will have money to patronize them. 

“Food security—a lot of people haven’t heard that before. I’m hearing that more and more…”

Export-wise, she said “we’re hopeful the markets in Asia will open up.”

While some $300 million has been earmarked by the federal government for seafood industry relief, Casoni said a business must show a 35 percent loss to qualify for any of it. Given the scale of America’s seafood industry, $300 million seems inadequate, she said, and paltry compared to the $93.3 billion earmarked for agriculture. She said Sen. Ed Markey and Sen Elizabeth Warren, along with Rep. Bill Keating, are working on a similarly “staggering number” for the seafood industry.

Such potentially lofty numbers aren’t tangible relief for some Vineyard fishermen at present.  

“To put it honestly, myself and many others are in a free fall,” Tashmoo fisherman Tubby Medeiros texted. Medeiros, who harvests conch (channel whelk) and fishes black sea bass aboard the Elisabeth Mae, is bearish about the state of the industry.

Medeiros said in the past fishing usually started weeks earlier and people started making money, “but this is just depressing to say the least. No market. No fishing. The boatyard in New Bedford is closed and I can’t even work on my boat. I’ll be at least three months behind by the time this clears.” 

Edgartown fisherman Donnie Benefit, who goes after conch exclusively aboard the Pay Back, doesn’t have a rosy economic outlook either. “I don’t project anything good happening,” he said. 

Prices are uncertain and the market in China is tough, he said, because conch has become too costly. “The American market’s nothing,” he said. “Maybe we will have one in the future when we get hungry…”

When prepared right, such as stuffed they way he stuffs them, Benefit said, conch is something special.  “You’d be like what the hell am I doing with stuffed quahogs?”

For all fisheries, he said, things are grim. “Without restaurants buying, fishermen are going to need big help,” he said. 

Vineyard Havener Danny Chan, who buys conch wholesale, agreed. “I don’t think it’s going to be a bright year this year,” he said.

Chan said the conch market was already in decline because the volume local fishermen produce cannot offset the cost of processing and shipping the meat. Also, he said, Asian markets have used conch as a substitute for more costly abalone. However abalone aquaculture has deflated abalone prices and limited the desire for conch. That and little interest domestically make for a tough market, he said.

“The industry will be gone in 10 years,” he predicted.

Conching is starting on Wednesday and our buyer is only buying from a few boats,” Vineyard Haven fisherman Andrew Wheeler texted. ”He’s in New Bedford and sends a truck….” Wheeler, who fishes aboard the Miss Jenna for conch and Jonah crab, said he was pessimistic about the Vineyard season.  

“It’s not looking good with this corona[virus] for the summer season,” he wrote. “So in my opinion it’s very bleak, I think Wes Brighton and Sam Hopkins have the right idea selling their sea scallops off the boat to the public. If everybody could do that, awesome but, you’ve got the markets that rely on the local catch also. It’s a very fine line between the two.

Aquaculturist Dan Martino of Cottage City Oysters has been selling locally online. “We felt that’s the safest way to protect the product and our employees,” he said.  Cottage City Oysters has asked online buyers to leave a cooler outside the house, then a representative will make their delivery in a mask and gloves. 

“It’s nothing compared to what we were selling to the restaurants but at least we’re moving some product,” he said. 

In an effort to given Islander’s access to seafood and to support local fishermen, he’s also been delivering scallops from the Martha Rose and locally dug little neck clams.

“We’ve noticed people want the little necks for pasta and things like that,” he said. 

Oyster seed is slated to come in soon but he expects to have cages full of oysters underwater that haven’t been sold. Unfortunately, he predicted the cages will have to get crammed with new baby oysters amidst the mature oysters. 

“We’ll probably lose half of them to overcrowding.”

Unsold oysters also run the risk of becoming “gaggers,” he noted, oysters too big for raw consumption and only good for cooking. Oysters seeded now will reach maturity and come to the market in 2023. Overcrowding, economic pullback, and other factors will have a knock on effect on future crops, he said. 

“When 2023 hits there’s going to be very little on the market.”

Stanley Larsen, who runs Menemsha Fish Market and captains the Four Kids, said he’s just getting ready to start fishing for fluke, flounder, black sea bass, and scup. At his market, he said he’s been doing his best to support Vineyard shellfishermen and aquaculturists. 

“We’ve been trying to help the cause,” he said. “We’ve been selling shellfish from the middle of February — buy one get one free. We’re trying to keep the local guys going.”

He said he’s moving a lot of sea scallops and wild caught oysters and he’s been selling out of Prince Edward Island mussels. He expects to offer skate this week. 

“A lot of local product and a lot of trading going on,” he said. 

Between the phone work, the sanitation, and the footwork, Larsen said he and his staff are working triple time. 

Concerning the impacts the pandemic is having on the industry, he said, “this is something I don’t see ending too awful quick here.”

For Menemsha lobsterman Wayne Iacono, Larsen remains a stalwart purchaser.

“He’s taking everything I get pretty much,” Iacono said. Larsen trucks in lobster bait, which Iacono described as a “big help” to local lobstermen. Iacono said he’s lobstered all winter aboard his boat Freedom and “all around it’s been okay” business-wise.  

Mitch Pachico who fishes conch and lobsters both by himself and with his father Glenn Pachico aboard the Mirage out of Tashmoo, has been digging quahogs but said he has nowhere to sell them. His family owns John’s Fish Market in Vineyard Haven and he said the town has prohibited the business from opening. He said his family was told if they weren’t open by March 20, they can’t open. 

“I don’t know if it’s legal, what they’re doing,” he said. John’s Fish Market is rigged for takeout, “that’s the weird thing,” he said. Right now he said his family is “just rolling with the punches.”

“We would like to open,” he said. 

“As far as fishing goes, there are basically a lot of unknowns right now,” he said. He plans to rig the Mirage for squid and set out on opening day for that fishery on May 1. Whatever he catches, he expects to freeze so the family market can use it for calamari. They just have to open first.