The Mayhew Boys
by Remy Tumin
Matt and Todd Mayhew wandered down to Nashaquitsa Pond one afternoon, leaving their parents behind. The cousins, then both three years old, were found wading out in the water with sticks, pretending to fi sh o of Clam Point.
“It was March, but we were out in the water,” Todd laughs on a recent fall morning. “That comes with having both of your fathers fishing together.”
The boys, both 31, run their family fishing boats out of Menemsha harbor. With broad hulls and barnacled bottoms, the vessels dock on the commercial wharf in the historic fishing village and have become icons in the harbor for more than 20 years. Todd captains the 75-foot Unicorn, with occasional help from his father and longtime fisherman Gregory Mayhew; Matt captains the 72-foot Quitsa Strider II, which previously belonged to his father Jonathan Mayhew.
As one of the first families to settle on the island, the Mayhews have ties on the Vineyard that trace back to the mid- 17th century. Their presence in the Chilmark fishing community is nearly as long. Matt and Todd started going dragging with their dads for squid and fluke when they were five or six years old. When they both turned 10—they headed out swordfishing and drift netting. Matt still remembers his first big catch—76 swordfish and a handful of tunas. But with increasingly stringent fishing regulations and high fuel costs, along with routine maintenance needed on the boats, the cousins are facing challenges that previous generations of fishermen have not, and the reality that this generation of young fishermen could be the last.
“It’s not a full-time living anymore,” Todd says.
“The tough part is being the one who feels like they’re going to end the tradition after having a family that’s been in it for however many generations. I think we’re the ones who have to decide not to be a part of it anymore because there’s no way we can get by.”
The Mayhews’ story is echoed throughout small fishing communities in New England.
The opportunities and support for young farmers continue to grow, dictated largely by consumer demand and mainstream adoption of the local food movement.
But for Matt, Todd and other young fishermen on the Island, the strict protocols and small quotas present a difficult balance—one of taking conservation measures and locating viable sources of income.
“All we wanted to do was be fishermen,” Todd says.
“Growing up here, especially in Menemsha, there was always a bigger fishing fleet and older fishermen. It’s more of a community feel. You don’t feel pressured into doing it, in fact most of the fishermen told me as I got older: ‘You don’t want to be a fishermen.”
Summers meant harpoon swordfishing for the Mayhew cousins, but unbeknownst to them, that fishery would soon come to a grounding halt.
“We came into the fishery, and didn’t know we were coming in at the end of an era when everyone was doing well,” Matt says. “We were so young; we were just having fun with it.”
“But we were here for the decline,”he adds.
Due to a relatively new catch share system, small family fishermen like the Mayhews find themselves caught between small catch allocations and regulations intended to bring back fish species in federal waters. But the new rules make it less cost efficient to head out for the day. Now, fishermen are allocated a quota of poundage per certain species of fish, replacing a system that allocated time on the water.
Neither the Quitsa nor the Unicorn goes out harpooning anymore. Matt’s father sold his federal permits in 2007 and Todd’s father fell ill and the swordfish permit expired. The last time a swordfish was harpooned in Vineyard waters was in 2006.
“We have to figure out a way to transition,” Matt says.
“When it’s a larger hill to climb it makes success that much better when you finally figure out how to make it work.” Todd still fishes with his father sometimes, but he hasn’t been offshore fishing in the winter in almost four years. Year-round fishing has been curtailed heavily, Todd says. He still holds federal and state licenses.
Federal permits are required outside of three miles off shore. For offshore fishing he’ll catch yellowtail, flounder, cod, haddock, monkfish, sea scallops andsome lobsters. Inshore fisheries tend to be more heavily concentrated with fluke and squid.
“Sometimes you’re out at sea and it’s calm weather, but the next thing there’s a huge thunderstorm rolling in,” says Todd. “You get to see it like nobody else. That’s something special.”
The cousins are inspired by the work being done within the town of Chilmark. People like shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer have done a phenomenal job bringing back bay scallops and keeping the shellfish industry thriving in the area, Todd says. The pair’s encouraged by upstarts like Alec Gale’s farmed blue mussels project on the North Shore and younger folks taking over their families’ boats.
The Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, established by the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen Association, has started a permit bank for young fishermen.
There’s even the potential of a “community supported fishing” idea, similar to the share system of community supported agriculture (CSA), they add.
“It’s a possibility we’ve talked about,” Matt says. “Maybe if we get some of the oyster growers to pitch in.”
So, is there hope for the next generation of fishermen on the Menemsha waterfront?
“Maybe in 10 years,” they say in unison.