By Lisa Cavanaugh
Southern California native Azure Cygler (neé Westwood) had just finished getting her undergraduate degree in marine biology at University of California Santa Cruz in 1999 when she happened to meet Mark Pappalardo, brother of Fishermen’s Alliance CEO John Pappalardo.
“I was getting interested in wild harvest fisheries issues and he told me his brother was doing some of the same work on Cape Cod,’ recalls Cygler.
A quick phone interview led to an invitation to interview.
“John picked me up from the airport and said he hoped I had packed some grubby clothes because I was going out on a tuna boat at 2 a.m. that night,” laughs Cygler. The proposed excursion didn’t take place due to bad weather, but it gave Cygler a sense of the hands-on work she would tackle as the fledgling organization’s new outreach and campaign coordinator.
“It was just three of us — John, Paul Parker and me,” she says, “in the old office on Orleans Road in North Chatham.”
The big issue was the Individual Transferable Quota system. “ITQs seemed to pose a threat to the livelihoods of the local fisherman on Cape Cod,” says Cygler, “So we pulled together a campaign and marched in Boston. We had big fish puppets, guys dressed in their gear, all sorts of things.
“Much of my work was relationship building. Connecting with fishermen and working with different NGOs, like Pew, who were our allies,” she says. Although it was at times a struggle to get the Cape Cod fishing community and the environmental organizations together, Cygler says that the Fishermen’s Alliance managed to find shared interest in supporting small scale, sustainable fisheries. “We were able to expand our office space a bit and create a community action center, with a library of resources, where fishermen could gather and work on solutions.”
After leaving the Fishermen’s Alliance in 2001, Cygler realized that she wanted to be a fisherman herself.
“I was accustomed to that work, as I had done a lot of that in my spare time on the Cape,” she says. “In Chatham I would bait hooks for the guys, jump on boats to fish, work traps, go jigging for cod, you name it.”
She got a site on a king crab boat in Alaska, worked on a pelagic longliner off American Samoa, then wound up back in California crewing on a sport fishing boat.
“Eventually I missed some of my friends on the Cape, so I came back East to take a job in Woods Hole, at the Northeast Fishing Science center, doing cooperative research.”
It was during one of her fieldwork excursions on Georges Bank that she met her husband. They married in 2003 and live with their two children in Rhode Island, where Cygler, who got her masters in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, is now a fisheries aquaculture specialist at the university’s Coastal Resource Center.
“My work at the Hook (as the Alliance was called in its early years) shaped so much of what I do and what I know,” she says. “Fisheries management is about the people, not managing fish. You need to make space for informal interaction, hearing people out and weaving their ideas into the whole story.
“I relished the informal moments packed with meaning and ideas and using your creative mind to make something productive come out of them.”
She is also nostalgic about the camaraderie of her days on the sea and at the harbor.
“I still miss the smell and view of the pier, baiting hooks, my hands being sore, the brilliant craziness of the conversations with fishermen, the feeling of a good day’s work,” she says.
And the moments, like one trip with Ted and Will Ligenza: “It was rough going over the bar, horrible weather. The three of us were huddled in the wheelhouse. It was scary but we all were kind of loving it, too.”