By Doreen Leggett
Of the top 29 fishing communities in the Northeast facing gentrification stress, Chatham is ranked third.
Research undertaken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collated a host of indices including retiree migration and housing disruption into a story map, also highlighting voices of fishermen.
“A story map puts it into context and can help raise awareness of issues that have been neglected,” said Matthew Cutler, a social scientist with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center who worked on the project.
Cutler, working with Rose Jimenez at the NOAA Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technology, said the communities facing gentrification pressure were chosen because of their high fishing engagement scores – which includes the value of landings and number of permits in town – from 2009 to 2018.
Top on the list was Barnegat Light, New Jersey. Chatham was right behind Montauk, New York. All three are ports with fishing ties that reach back to the 1700s, but they are also blessed with natural amenities, have a lot of wealth and are hot vacation spots. Cutler said he, like many, has visited Chatham and had a lobster roll by the fish pier.
Economic and access pressures (which have only grown as COVID has increased housing prices in Chatham to a median of $1.2 million) can be exacerbated by increasing regulations and environmental changes.
“We do these story maps to tell a better story of what the impacts may be of fisheries management policies,” said Cutler. “The idea is to update every so often and maybe tie in climate change indicators.”
Fisheries management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act is designed to focus on sustainability, biology and optimum yield – the health of fish in the ocean – but not what happens onshore. Social science slices are important, said Cutler, as is the character of coastal communities.
“There is no policy to address gentrification pressures,” he said.
Shareen Davis, chairman of Chatham’s Select Board and the granddaughter, wife and mother of fishermen, is far from surprised at the threat to her community.
She remembers a Chatham where if you had money you didn’t live on the water; it was damp and cold and the winter winds were inhospitable. Fishermen lived on the water.
Now prestigious homes and luxury resorts hug the economic engine that is the fish pier. Other ports in town have changed as well.
“Look at Stage Harbor,” Davis said. “Generations lived and raised their families along the waterfront because they worked the waterfront. That’s not there anymore.”
Townspeople supported the purchase of a dock on Stage Harbor, owned by Davis and her family, to protect it for use by commercial fishermen and protect access to the sea if Chatham Harbor became shoaled in.
The town is also working on plans to create affordable housing. If those endeavors are approved, said Davis, it will be a help, but will not solve the problem.
“We have no housing inventory anywhere in Chatham for people working on the working waterfront,” she said. “We will see it in every industry and we will see a slow leak.”
Chatham, more so than other communities, is “highly reliant” on fisheries, the study said, and its high housing disruption is “often linked to an out-migration of younger residents and displacement of less affluent residents.”
“People feel like the story map reflects their lived reality,” said Cutler.
Davis said commercial fishermen in town have been adaptable and can switch from fishery to fishery, which makes them resilient and not as dependent on one species.
But access and infrastructure are issues. Chatham does not have much processing and the prospect of getting trucks to the piers to pick up fish for market can be daunting.
Cutler said other fishing communities on the Cape, such as Provincetown, are also facing severe gentrification pressures. But those communities may not have been on the list because the landings in one of the years in the data set was low or not tagged to that port.
“I want to re-emphasize that these are indicators, they aren’t the definitive answer,” Cutler said.
Examples of ports not under intense gentrification pressure were Newport News, Virginia, and North Kingston, Rhode Island. Both don’t have a lot of retiree migration, but do have large fishing economies with other significant industries. In Newport News, for example, the community’s economy is tied to military enterprise. A muscular port like New Bedford fell in the middle of the group.
Cutler explained that the report drew in oral histories of fishermen and fisheries advocates, such as Davis, who have fought to protect working harbors elsewhere as well as in Chatham.
“We need to have the ability to keep Chatham unique and Chatham’s fishing industry unique,” Davis said.