By Doreen Leggett
Captain Sam Linnell arrived from offshore around 1 a.m., unloaded his catch, ran it up to a New Bedford buyer in a borrowed truck, sold the fish, motored back to the Cape, cleaned up — and met a contingent of people from Cape Cod Healthcare at the Chatham Fish Pier later that morning.
Time to spare.
The group included chief executive officer and president Mike Lauf, who leads the team that runs Cape Cod Hospital, Falmouth Hospital,
Spaulding Rehab, and other crucial healthcare facilities across the Cape. They were on a community benefits tour to highlight programs the organization helps support through grants. The day included stops to celebrate better public transportation from Provincetown to mid-Cape healthcare facilities, a new midwife program at Outer Cape Health in Wellfleet, and the Ellen Jones Dental Center, which is moving to Patriot Square in Dennis.
Lauf, dressed in a blue suit and no overcoat on a bitterly cold windy day, stood on Captain Nick Muto’s boat with Linnell and others as about a half a dozen fishermen worked on vessels nearby. He was there to celebrate a program intended to try to keep fishermen fishing all year long, keep what they catch local, pay them fair market price, and help the community as well.
Through its community grant program, the hospital has been supporting Fish for Families, a regular distribution of local fish to needy Cape residents launched in 2013 by the Fishermen’s Alliance and the Family Pantry of Cape Cod.
Working with Christine Menard, the executive director of the family pantry, the successful program does about five distributions a year and provides free, high-quality protein in food pantries across the Cape. This year the Harwich pantry alone, largest of the system, is on track to serve 10,000 people with 105,000 bags of groceries. Fish for Families distributed almost 9,000 pounds of fish in 2019, which translates into more than 20,000 meals.
“This is so important,” Lauf said.
Lauf told the group gathered on the early November day that he was one of four children raised by a single mother, so knows what it is to rely on free lunches. He also understands the crucial importance of programs like food pantries.
“We are going to help you,” Lauf said. “We are going to be there with you. More to come.”
The hospital has already signed on to do more with the Fishermen’s Alliance. Forward thinkers in health care are concentrating on preventative care with healthy eating and fish is a rock star protein, proven beneficial for everything from your brain to your heart, memory to mood.
The Fishermen’s Alliance is always working to make sure more local fish ends up on local plates and to that end recently received another grant from Cape Cod Healthcare to develop a survey to see how more local fish could be brought into group kitchens that serve older populations. The survey is being distributed to Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, which provides 317,000 meals a year to seniors, and to private assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
The idea is that through knowing what the opportunities are, and how to remove logistical hurdles, more local fish can end up on local plates.
“Cape Cod Hospital’s support for Fish for Families is proof positive that our leading health care institution understands the direct connection between nutritious meals and healthy communities,” said Seth Rolbein, who runs the Fish for Families program for the Fishermen’s Alliance. “Now they’re helping us take a next step; exploring how we can offer more local fish to our older populations. This is preventative healthcare in action, while at the same time supporting our homegrown, small-boat commercial fishermen.”
According to Robin Lord, communications director for Cape Cod Healthcare, hospital staff continually reviews the needs of the community, conducting an annual stakeholder survey that results in the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA). The CHNA informs the Community Benefits grants, with a special emphasis on financially disadvantaged and underserved populations.
Lauf took the opportunity to delve into the economics and dynamics of fishing, asking a series of questions about how the industry works. He gestured to the fish pier and asked where all the fish was heading.
“Most of what we catch is unfortunately shipped overseas,” said Muto; the main markets for monkfish, dogfish and skate are not in the United States, which diminishes the income of local fishermen.
Muto explained that much of the fish landed goes over the pier to wholesalers Red’s Best and Marder Trawling (who packages the Fish for Families distributions). The catch has changed over the years, less cod and pollock but more “underloved” species like skate.
“We are trying to reinvent these businesses to target what is here now,” said Muto.
Muto also explained that much of the crucial onshore infrastructure – processing facilities for example – has been lost. Keeping the town fish pier as a working waterfront is crucial to fishing’s future.
“Thank God for the town of Chatham,” added Ray Kane, a former captain and now outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Many of the captains and crew were around, working on boats that were idle because the wind had sprung up. Muto had been fishing close to shore the afternoon before and felt it around 1 p.m.; he was home by 1:45.
Linnell who was 30 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, felt the same wind but had a much longer ride back. “Made it more rugged,” he shrugged, explaining that he had to keep his crew safe, which on that trip was his brother and younger cousin.
In February and March they go farther still, right to the edge of canyons a good 100 miles away.
Even so, Lauf exacted a promise from the fishermen: “Take me fishing,”
urged. “just not tomorrow.”
Muto smiled. Sometime in the summer, he agreed.