Undercutts of hope, struggle and contradiction sway our catch of the day

The Island’s Next Generation of Fishermen

by Chris Hufstader

The Island’s Next Generation of Fishermen

Randi Baird

Could the future of commercial fishing on Martha’s Vineyard come in a sock? Two young fishermen are attempting it, with a method of farming blue mussels in Vineyard Sound off Cape Higgon and in the ocean off Aquinnah.

On a blustery winter day, they bring their 55-foot boat, Jane Lee, alongside the dock in Menemsha and unload this unlikely catch: a six-foot-long mesh snake filled with dime-sized mussels.

Alec Gale, a 33-year-old fisherman from West Tisbury and captain of the Jane Lee, says it seems logical to raise mussels: “Growing up here, I have always seen mussels, and I know they grow like weeds. To be able to harvest them, well, it would be great.”

He and his partner Tim Broderick, also 33 and from Chilmark, hope that blue mussels will open up a year-round opportunity for commercial fishing on the Island. “We see the mussel fishery as wise stewardship of our resources here. I’ve been involved in various ways of fishing but this is one that is really looking to the future. There is potential for employment, the mussels are nutritious, and I don’t have to go ten miles offshore, they’re right here in Menemsha bight.”

The mussel farm system they have been testing over the winter suspends a series of narrow mesh socks from a horizontal line near the surface in 40 feet of water, deep enough to prevent pea crabs from eating the mussels. Each sock is planted with mussel seed, which grow inside the mesh. Broderick and Gale hope to raise the mussels to marketable maturity in nine months. This is faster than an aquaculture operation in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where it takes 12 months to raise marketable mussels. Before starting the experiment, they had to navigate a morass of permits and funding grants. The pair worked locally with Rick Karney of the MV Shellfish Group, Warren Doty of the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund, and the late Tom Osmers, a West Tisbury fisherman. They also collaborated with Scott Lindell, Director of the Scientific Aquaculture Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, who would evaluate the sock of mussels brought in on the Jane Lee that day. Funding came through from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund, and the MV Permanent Endowment Fund, as well as the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Eventually, they hope to raise 700,000 pounds a year from the two sites.

Committed to Fishing

Young fishermen on the island are looking at alternative forms of fishing, such as aquaculture, because the ways their parents and grandparents fished are disappearing. The days of running large boats out to George’s Banks to drag for cod and halibut appear to be nearly over for Vineyard fishermen.

Mohawk Bolin, a 32-year-old Edgartown native, says young people have had to re-imagine a prosperous fishing life on the Island. “To get started, I had to buy a boat and licenses so I can fish. When I talk with older guys, they say they could get a job working as a young person on a big boat. It was a way to learn for them.

“But now there are no more big boats to work on.”

Many young Islanders committed to fishing have struggled to piece together a living, switching species with the seasons, from fluke in the spring to striped bass in the summer and bay scallops in the winter. Bolin eventually settled on trapping conch on Nantucket Sound in his 36-foot lobster boat, Rock & Roll. He sells his catch to a buyer in New York, who processes and ships the shellfish to China, Taiwan, and Korea. “Conch must be one of Martha’s Vineyard’s biggest international exports,” he says one frigid winter afternoon on his boat, docked at the foot of Edgartown’s Main Street. The late afternoon sun glares off his face as he drags on a cigarette and reflects on the previous year’s catch.

Bolin says conching is a steady job for him. “You won’t have a big day every day, but you can scratch out a day’s pay after getting a boat and a license. It’s working out for me, I’m fishing and I’m not complaining. It’s a good way to make a living.”

Next: Aquaculture

It’s been hard for fishing families on the Island in recent years. Many blame government regulations that impose quotas and restrict days at sea. “They’ve made it really hard to make a living, setting quotas that make no sense, the numbers just don’t add up,” says Ryan Smith, 25. Smith grew up in Edgartown and used to go out sea scalloping with his father Joe. He watched his father’s opportunities to fish for sea scallops and cod diminish over the years until, as he puts it, “It is pretty much impossible to make a living. The draggers and sea scallopers are out of business.”

Ryan started an oyster farm on Katama Bay three years ago, along with seven others who were already established there. Some of the Bay’s shellfishermen had taken advantage of a 1995 Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group program to re-train fishermen who had struggled to maintain a viable livelihood after the decline of the George’s Bank fishery.

He says Katama Bay is ideal for raising oysters. “The water quality here is excellent, the oysters grow well and taste good and they really sell themselves—I get no complaints.” In 2009 he branded his venture ‘Signature Oysters’. At the end of 2009 he had just gotten his wholesaler’s license, but said he sold most of his oysters to the Net Result fish market in Tisbury. After struggling the first year of operation with little cash flow and battling oyster diseases, Ryan says the oysters are doing better, and he finds raising oysters more predictable than scalloping. “It’s all a gamble, but you can predict the future and I know that if I have good seed I will have a good year. With commercial fishing, if you can’t catch anything you won’t have the money.”

He and his father have between them about 450 cages of oysters growing in Katama Bay, and are collaborating on productionand marketing. On a snowy February morning, Ryan makes his rounds in the swift current on his powerboat, raising the square cages out of the mud and removing the small horizontal mesh containers of oysters. He looks out over a gray bay toward
the opening at South Beach and wonders if he can gross $100,000 in 2010.

Back in Menemsha, Tim Broderick echoes, Ryan’s sentiment regarding the predictability of aquaculture as an attraction. “I’ve been sea clamming in the winter, fishing and fluking in the summer, and it is tough to make a living. I’ve often thought there must be a better way to use our resources, and we wanted to start something with some longevity.”

He steals a glance at the sock full of immature blue mussels on the dock. “I really like the idea of harvesting something we plant, instead of looking for fish.”

Faith in Seafood

Faith Vanderhoop, 31, realized a life-long dream by opening a small restaurant on the cliffs in Aquinnah, Faith’s Seafood Shack and Sushi Bar, in 2009. It combines two of her loves: fishing and food. A veteran scalloper, she learned the art from her parents growing up in Aquinnah (she is the youngest in her family). Faith was looking forward to running her restaurant with her fiancé James A. Shephard IV and scalloping in the winter on Menemsha Pond.

The restaurant had a good first season, despite the poor economy. But Faith’s plan to fish for scallops this past winter did not work out as well. “This year it was horrible,” she says of the scalloping on Menemsha Pond. “You could not get a bushel in an hour, they were getting half a bushel in two hours. It was a lot of seed, and you just can’t fish that out. So they closed the pond—that means no fishing.”

The closure of Menemsha Pond is just the latest in challenges for young up-Island fishermen, Faith says. “It’s not easy making a living fishing in my town. You have to have a boat and know what you are doing, and invest in the equipment. It is really hard to afford a year round home here. If you want to fish, you have to work hard to make it happen.”

Faith was faced with a shortfall in winter income, so like all resourceful fishermen on the Island, she adapted. “You have to find alternative ways of surviving, so I am opening scallops for others in Edgartown, where they are having a good season.”

Her Wampanoag heritage comes out in her work: “While I am cutting scallops I say a little prayer, I thank the scallops for giving their life for me and my family,” she says.

“You have to give thanks for what gives you sustenance and appreciate how you survive.”

A Sustainable Family Tradition

Todd Mayhew’s family has lived on the island for hundreds of years. He began fishing with his father, Greg, in the summer when he was nine years old, spending as much as a week at sea harpooning swordfish. Now 28 years old and married, Todd says harpooning swordfish in the summer is the best form of fishing. “For me, it is the soul, the joy of fishing. You stalk the one fish, and if it’s small you do not harpoon it. And you feel connected to the old times, it’s more like a hunt, and you really have to work as a team. I steer from aloft, and my father usually harpoons.”

While Todd’s father and grandfather used to be able to go out for a day in the summer and hunt swordfish off Nomans Land, these days father and son may steam north for 100 miles, 24 hours straight, and hunt for them near the maritime border with Canada. Fuel costs for this are extremely high—so the Mayhews devote fewer and fewer trips in their 72-foot steel-hulled trawler Unicorn to this species.

The Mayhews with their Unicorn may be one of the last trawlers on the Island still fishing in federal waters, in the Gulf of Maine, George’s Bank, and southern New England waters. There they trawl for cod, yellowtail flounder, monkfish, and grey sole in the winter months.

Todd says he and his father fish around the clock when they are at sea: After setting their gear, one sleeps for four hours while the other steers the boat. They then both haul the net, sort the catch, redeploy the gear, and switch places.

He says it is more and more challenging to make a living on the water. They signed on to a new federal fishing sector system that allocates quotas for yellowtail flounder for the next five years, when they hope the quota will be increased. This will determine whether Mayhew can keep fishing full time, or will have to find other work. “I hope to continue fishing, as my father and his father did,” Mayhew says, as he prepares to take a trip to New Bedford to pick up ice and head back out to George’s Bank. At the same time, he also hopes the new quotas protect the resource on which he and his family depend. “When I have children I want something left for them,” he says thoughtfully. “I don’t want to be the one who took it all away.”