Sesuit Harbor in Dennis is one of the small commercial fishing ports on the Cape that has a big impact on the peninsula.
By Doreen Leggett
Selectman Paul McCormick lives on the south side of Dennis where there are still signs of an ancient weir fishery that began with Native Americans and later helped build the Cape.
He happily answers visitors’ questions about the historic fishery in the context of the industry’s importance today.
“We need to foster it,” McCormick said. “This to me is very, very important.”
The impact of the Cape’s fisheries, and the challenges they face, spurred a Fishermen’s Alliance visit to the Dennis Board of Selectmen earlier this month, the first of many town visits as the non-profit highlights a Port Profile Study, sponsored by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, which looks at port economics and their infrastructure needs.
“We were blown away by the muscular nature of commercial fishing,” said Seth Rolbein of the Fishermen’s Alliance.
The Port Profile Study, with DMF engaging Urban Harbors Institute at UMass Boston and the Fishermen’s Alliance, shows that the Cape’s small ports have a collective value that bests Gloucester by $20 million: $73 million in ex-vessel value, meaning money paid directly to the boat. Those numbers are several years old; the value swelled last year with lobster alone topping $120 million statewide.
Lobster is one of the most valuable catches in the town of Dennis, sharing top billing with oysters. Although Dennis landings are not as robust as other Cape ports, the fisheries are still a significant economic driver with 37 permitted harvesters in town and 101 vessels homeported there, landing 5.4 million pounds worth more than $3 million.
Sesuit Harbor is also valuable for fishermen from other towns who rely on Dennis to run their businesses in the winter.
“What they make comes back in fuel, comes back in insurance, comes back in bread, it stays,” said Rolbein. “So the multiplier effect of these figures is phenomenal and it creates a year-round community of people who are blue, who respect the environment, who try and hold our towns together. These are sophisticated, independent, entrepreneurial spirits with six-figure investments in hardware and a boat.”
Challenges faced in Dennis fishermen are common across the Cape.
Access is one. The sheer volume of recreational boaters can lead to commercial fishermen being pushed out of traditional ports and to gentrification.
Towns have been leery of putting port repairs on the tax rate, so user fees go up and essentials for fishermen, such as cranes to unload catch, go dormant. In Dennis, the commercial fleet has to unload at high tide and many have had to install booms on their vehicles.
“The capacity of our commercial fishing fleet to survive is linked to the working waterfronts,” said Rolbein.
There are long waiting lists for slips and moorings. If there are no protections or priority for commercial fishermen, recreational boats will take those spots. As an example, when lobstermen get older and sell, if a younger lobsterman has no space for his boat the business must leave Sesuit. There are several young fishermen in Dennis who are facing close to 30-year wait times.
For fishermen who need the port for short durations, the price can be $130 a night, more affordable for the owner of a sailboat on vacation than a business.
Increasing prices for docking can also make business plans unworkable, as can daily parking fees for fishermen who need to trailer their boats because they do not have access to moorings or slips. Of close to 300 spaces available at Sesuit, industry members say less than 10 are occupied by commercial fishermen who fish year-round or make the majority of their income fishing.
One recommendation in the study is for towns to identify the supply of docks and moorings for commercial fishing vessels and the demand for additional options.
Chatham, Harwich, Provincetown and Sandwich dedicate berthing spaces and other facilities to commercial fishing. Harwich and Chatham also have reduced fees for commercial vessels, as do Orleans, Eastham and Provincetown. Developing new recreational transient dockage may take pressure off the commercial fleet. Towns could use available federal grant funding for this.
“I do think we need to think about lower rates for commercial slips,” McCormick said.
McCormick has some insight into the fishing industry as a daughter dated a commercial fisherman.
“It’s amazing the fees he has to pay,” he said.
The young man invested $200,000 in a boat, bought fishing permits and helps power the local economy by employing crew and selling fish.
Rolbein connected the conversations the board was having about the changing social fabric of the town to the industry.
“This is one way our year-round indigenous community can hold on,” he said. “Times will come, and I am sure you will be sympathetic, when uses of the ports, which really are our access to the great beyond … will define whether the historic small-boat independent commercial fishing fleet can survive.
“That’s why we are here, to share that with you.”