By Doreen Leggett
Scott MacAllister is in the throes of groundfish season. He has been working 16-hour days, barely sleeping during the hours he has before waking up in the middle of the night to set off from Chatham Fish Pier once again.
So he is exhausted, but running on adrenaline and what seems like a perennially great attitude, when he makes it to his first set of gillnets that have been soaking overnight. This set, like yesterday’s, didn’t have a ton of fish.
There are three sets, 15 nets in each, but this is an inauspicious beginning; the first few 300-foot nets come up almost empty or with fish looking like grey pajamas, all floppy and soft. Hag fish, red and snakelike, slide across the deck – they have eaten all the meat.
Suddenly there is a burst of gunfire.
MacAllister, having shot over the starboard side of the boat, walks back to the wheelhouse with a handgun and a grin.
“That should scare the demons off the boat,” he says.
The last time he had a bad set one of his deck hands, Brandt Sessoms, who hasn’t lost his southern Georgian drawl, set off a bunch of fireworks.
“Worked like a charm,” says MacAllister, who looks like he could be in high school even though he is 25. “We always carry something that is really fun.”
MacAllister’s boat with crew Sessoms, Stephanie Sykes and that day Dusan Uksanovic (from Montengro, heading home a few days later), is considered the youngest in the fleet of 80 or so boats in and around Chatham.
MacAllister knows he is an anomaly. Fishing isn’t considered the best career path nowadays — too hard, too unpredictable, too uncertain.
“There aren’t a lot of young people going into it,” he says. “It is just too much work.”
When the majority of the fishermen started there was far less regulation, and fishing permits were free.
Not so now. MacAllister used the money his grandmother (a day trader in the stock market) left him for college and instead bought a boat, named Carol Marie after her. But then he had to use money he was saving for a house to pay for a groundfish permit, so moved in with his father.
Still, he’s happy. He thinks he did the right thing and got a good deal. The boat and the permit, which included some monkfish quota, cost about $165,000.
MacAllister pretty much always knew he would go fishing. He was born on the Cape but moved off when his parents divorced, going to technical school in Franklin.
He liked building and fixing things. One of his jobs was cutting fiberglass to build boats for the Coast Guard, which was cool. MacAllister was offered a few jobs in his field, facilities management.
But he had been shellfishing summers since he was 13 and fishing since he was a sophomore and he wasn’t letting go.
“I manage a facility,” he says dryly, looking around at the wheelhouse with a fairly roomy cabin down below and an eclectic menagerie of movies from “The Sure Thing” with John Cusack to a boatload of Westerns tucked in by the window.
Just before he graduated high school he remembers talking to his guidance counselor who said he wasn’t going to make any money fishing. MacAllister said nothing. But what he thought was, ‘I am going to make more than you!’
“They just don’t understand it,” MacAllister says. “Everybody down here fishes. It’s just norm.”
Less so now. Before the 1980s it was like the fishermen ran the town, but now some people don’t even know they are there. That’s why it is hard to find crew. MacAllister started in high school working on a boat, F/V Constance Sea owned by Greg Connors; he was friends with Connors’ son.
He spent close to five years on Connors’ boat before getting his own and was lucky enough to find a first mate he knows well too.
MacAllister first met Stephanie Sykes when he was 15, and they were reintroduced more than a year and a half ago. Sykes grew up on the Cape, but went to Taber Academy and then on to the University of New Hampshire for marine biology.
She was doing research on gillnetting and ran into MacAllister again when she asked him some questions. After graduation, Sykes worked as an observer, paid to oversee fishing boats as part of federal management, which is almost a prerequisite to getting a good job as a research scientist.
But she quit to crew. “I really like fishing,” says Sykes, her long blond hair tied back in a braid. Besides, sitting in an office cubicle with no windows isn’t really her thing, Sykes adds.
When she mentions that she fishes for a living, she usually gets a weird look. There are other parts of the country where there are more women in the fisheries, Alaska being one. Even Maine has a fair amount of women, although a lot of them are lobstering, not groundfishing. There it is more of a family thing, daughters take over businesses from their fathers, she says.
Her family is ok with her fishing. Her mom has owned a few companies, one a lobster wholesaler, so she understands.
“She has always worked really hard so she doesn’t mind the fishing thing,” Sykes says. But, she added, her mom does make sure she puts 30 percent of her income away for taxes. Sykes says the crew gives her a hard time because if she has any free time she will go to New Hampshire to see friends, or go to the gym, which they find hilarious because fishing is such a physical job.
Sykes appreciates the ribbing though. “It’s like watching a comedy show,” she says of the atmosphere.
MacAllister just raises his eyebrows when someone asks what he does for fun.
“Fishing is fun,” he says.
Sykes passed up a few other jobs, and probably a few vacations, to crew on the Carol Marie.
“I don’t think he knows that,” she says of MacAllister.
On a trip late last fall Sykes was driving the boat. It was around 4 a.m. and MacAllister had gotten them over the infamous Chatham bar and gone below to catch some sleep. She would wake him shortly and he would steam the rest of the way out.
Although MacAllister is laid back he pays attention to where he puts his gillnets and he is trying different spots and ways of fishing.
Anything to get ahead. He knows some traditional areas and “secret spots” but he’ll drive around and look at the sounder. He’ll keep his eyes out for rock piles or the hard bottom that groundfish prefer.
“You wind up steaming over something that looks good,” he said.
It is not unusual to leave the dock at midnight, haul gear full of skates until around 3 a.m. and then start on dogfish. Ideally he’ll be back at the dock by 4 p.m. and after stopping to grab a sandwich wrapped in plastic, some Red Bull, cigarettes and Hostess chocolate snowballs, he’s home by 8.
MacAllister intends to work hard until he retires, though “maybe not as hard as I do now.”
On this day, when they get close to the first set it is not quite 6 a.m. MacAllister gets the crew up with a “wakie wakie” and flips on lights below deck.
These are good days because he is groundfishing. Still, he will combine the trip with dependable skates and dogfish.
He worries about talk in amongst members of the fleet that the rules should be changed to create a limited access quota system for skates, maybe even dogs. Now everyone can catch the same amount, but a limited access system could hurt MacAllister who hasn’t spent enough time fishing to build up his catch numbers.
To catch groundfish, such as cod, he has to lease quota from the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which he purchases at a lower-than-market price. The goal of the program is to help fishermen build a successful business, reinvest, and eventually buy their own quota.
Without that support he would have to lease western Georges Bank cod quota at about $2 per pound. Through the Trust he can lease it for $1.25.
This day, MacAllister was targeting pollock, which he can lease for about six cents per pound and sell for more than $2. But he’s bound to get cod mixed in.
The day before had been one to remember.
They had literally been swimming in pollock. On deck the crew was swishing through fish.
Sykes said they are super careful with groundfish. They are proud of the way they look, and organize them just so. MacAllister even has the crew cut on the boat because he wants them perfectly filleted.
“We pack them ourselves,” he said.
That day, after the gun went off, the team pulled up to the next set of nets. The set before had been tangled.
Sykes is “flaking,” separating the top of the net from the bottom so they can be set out again. It is not easy work, yanking hundreds of feet of tangled net onto the deck, separating the weighted end from the one that floats.
And speed is paramount. The other crew members are taking fish out of the nets, putting them in tubs and pushing the nets along a big wooden table. Sessoms relishes telling Sykes to move it when the net piles up. But he seems to know when he better close his mouth.
Sykes’ arms and hands are constantly in motion yanking down the net and getting splattered by residual fish slime, with little time to stop and wipe it off. She tells a recent story of her literal brush with an ocean creature.
“I just wiped my face straight on this sea anemone,” she said matter-of-factly. “They do sting a bit.”
There are also an abundance of crabs. The team smashes them with mallets and throws them overboard so they don’t ruin the nets. When a few skates come aboard, MacAllister grabs them, saying, “I am glad you could make it,” before bopping them on the head so they will be easier to handle.
MacAllister is at the winch. The nets come up slowly along a metal slide and then the rope goes around a tub, then fish continue down a chute where the crew grabs them and gets them out of the nets.
Although it looks like they are cutting fish out they are just moving the mesh and freeing them.
Although not as good of a day as yesterday when they all came home with $1,000 in their pockets, there are a lot of big, glistening grey pollock coming aboard. Lots of cod too.
He untangles one, a big one known as “a whale cod,” and pats it.
“Baby they are coming now,” he says, laughing as an amped version of Radar Love blares.