A small but lively crowd of people clapped excitedly as John Keene, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, cut the red rope Tuesday, signaling the opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Collaborative. The red rope was a significant symbol because it is a weak line that’s mandatory for fishermen to use for traps because it breaks at a certain weight and is safer for whales, according to the Trust’s executive director, Shelley Edmundson.
The Seafood Collaborative was created as an extension of the trust, and will act as a wholesale market to connect Island fishermen to buyers. According to the collaborative’s website, the focus is “to wholesale a seasonal variety of local species both on- and off-Island to restaurants, markets, private chefs, caterers, and larger wholesale distributors.”
Present at the event were Keene, Edmundson, and Pete Lambos, director of operations for the collaborative.
Keene said the collaborative works to cooperate with the fish markets and fishermen of the Islands. He said the collaborative wants to conduct business “without disrupting balances that are already in place.” It will sell fishermen’s catches to various food providers, but not to individuals, to avoid being a competitor to local markets.
“That wouldn’t be very respectful to the established fish markets,” said Keene. Instead, the collaborative aims to promote the retailers, such as Larsen’s Fish Market and Menemsha Fish Market in Chilmark.
Keene expects the collaborative to have a positive economic impact on the Island. “Money that comes in here gets spread out to the whole Island economy,” said Keene. “It gets a cash influx for the fishermen, and they get to spend it on a house or whatever, so it helps the whole economy. The more we can get to go through here, the more it will help our Island community.”
The target locations for selling seafood are in Massachusetts, such as Boston or New Bedford. Keene said if the collaborative went further, they wouldn’t be able to pay the fishermen a fair or high price.
Lambos said that he is working on marketing the Island’s oysters to restaurants in Colorado. The plan is to send the products to local distributors in Massachusetts who would then deliver the oysters to Colorado. The restaurants would pay for shipping, so it wouldn’t cost the collaborative extra for sending the products. Lambos said the oysters can be in Colorado kitchens within 48 hours, and “they love the samples.” This also allows Island fishermen to earn an income a little longer, after many of the Island’s restaurants close for the winter season.
Keene said the idea of an Island-wide wholesale fish market has been rolling around for about a year and a half. When the Menemsha Fish House, previously the Island’s largest year-round wholesale fish market, permanently closed its doors in October, the trust thought, “Well, what if we can try our concept here?” and bid for the property.
Edmundson said the trust fundraised $550,000 for the Seafood Collaborative.
Betsy and Jesse Fink were major financial and advisory supporters of the collaborative. They have worked with the trust since near its inception, and gave a seed grant to encourage other people to support the collaborative. “We do a lot of work with venture philanthropy throughout the country, so we’re able to take some of our off-Island experience and expertise and bring it on-Island,” said Jesse Fink. “We hope that this accomplishes both environmental and cultural sustainability. It helps the local fishermen, it helps keep the food on-Island, and we also hope there’s innovation that happens with fishing techniques.”
Warren Adams, a philanthropic advisor to the Finks, helped establish the collaborative by looking over the business plans and telling the story of why the collaborative is so beneficial to the Island community. Adams also worked with Lambos’ projections for the business. “We really hope it becomes a sustainable fishery,” said Adams.
According to Lambos, Martha’s Vineyard Bank also made a donation to the collaborative to purchase a $40,000 ice machine, one of the most important tools in keeping the seafood fresh.
Lambos said that it was a “smooth transition” changing the Menemsha Fish House to the Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Collaborative. “It’s been really fun to build a business,” he said. Lambos has worked in the nonprofit sector for 11 years before joining the fishing industry, so he has experience necessary to operate the collaborative “They’ve been great with their support,” he said of the trust.
The collaborative helps get more Island products to market, while the trust helps beginner fishermen to enter the industry. Commercial fishing is an expensive venture, and fishermen are aging. According to National Fisherman, the age of New England fishermen has increased by 10 years compared with previous generations. This pushes a need for younger fishermen to take up the mantle. “There needs to be another generation that continues the tradition,” said Lambos. He estimates that the average Massachusetts fisherman’s age is in the high 40s, maybe higher. “Someone needs to come in on the back end and start learning how to do it and take over these different operations to be a sustainable industry,” said Lambos. In 2020, Congress passed a bipartisan bill called the Young Fishermen’s Development Act to implement educational programs for young people who want to enter the commercial fishing industry. This act took inspiration from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Trust also helps young fishermen with making permits affordable and steering them in the right direction.
Keene said the Trust’s benefit package comes with a condition: Fishermen who receive support are required to attend the Trust’s meetings. This helps to show fishermen that there is a strength in numbers and that they are all striving for common goals, even if they might not want to share their fishing hot spots.
Edmundson also said, “The world of fishery management is incredibly complicated.” It is a balancing act of maintaining the sustainable numbers of marine species while allowing fishermen to earn a living. Additionally, each fishing permit comes with different strict regulations, both federal and state, such as how much they can land, what type of fishing equipment is allowed, and how much of a certain species a fisherman can catch.
“Not only do we need good science to have sustainable fisheries, but there are other pieces that are needed in infrastructure to make sure we can have family fishermen,” said Edmundson. She said a lot of the information the state uses comes from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Edmundson is a part of the state Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, which she joined this year. She joined to be a representative for the Island’s fishermen. “Being on an Island, it’s harder to have a presence and voice your concerns or opinions. I wanted to represent the Island fishermen and whatever concerns they have, and be a voice for them,” said Edmundson.
Lambos said he likes hiring high school students to show them the charm of life on the harbor. He hopes the collaborative can also do educational programs, such as oyster-shucking classes, to foster interest in students toward the commercial fishing industry. “Give a kid a little Boston Whaler and a fishing pole, and he can bring in 150 pounds of black sea bass, and that’s how they start. Then they can size up, get a lobster permit and a boat, they’re pulling pots, and they start making some good money.”
There are already some younger fishermen working in Menemsha, and Keene said they are “bringing the whole harbor back to life.”