By Doreen Leggett
As soon as he was old enough to ride a bicycle around Barnstable, Connor Rogan was fishing. After he got his driver’s license it was easier and he started working on charter boats when he was 16.
“Once I started making money at it I was like, ‘Wow, this is perfect,’” he said.
Rogan has been on gillnetters out of Chatham, sea clammers out of Provincetown, sea scallopers out of Harwich, draggers out of Rhode Island, and boats out of Wellfleet and other Cape ports as well. He has also been a commercial shellfisherman in his hometown of Barnstable for a few years.
He is accustomed to working hard.
Rogan was ready for the next step in his commercial fishing career. But he couldn’t take it.
He is either on a waitlist, or has inquired about, a mooring or a slip in Barnstable, Dennis, Mashpee and Sandwich. He talked to a commercial fisherman the other day who has been on that list in Sandwich since 1992.
“That’s five years before I was born,” Rogan said.
Rogan opted to start his career anyway. He bought the cheapest lobster permit he could find and a 22-foot boat from a high school kid up in Maine.
The permit allows him to fish close to 800 traps, but he has to trailer the boat, so he works 150 or 200.
“I can’t just clam forever,” Rogan said.
Besides the lack of a spot to put his boat, he is dealing with crowded landings, multiple fees, inadequate unloading facilities, deteriorating ramps, all of which make commercial fishing a daily struggle.
Rogan finds it baffling that towns aren’t more supportive, like they are of brick-and-mortar businesses.
“It’s not a storefront, but it’s really the same thing,” he said. “It’s just as lucrative, if not more, than a shop on Main Street.”
Rogan has a friend who has been on the Barnstable Harbor list since he was 13 and is now 26; he thinks people look at the list and walk away.
“I’m sure there are people out there who have the capital and desire, but just don’t go for it,” he said.
Unlike other towns, Barnstable regulations don’t have many protections in place for commercial fishing. If one of the few fishermen with a commercial mooring in Barnstable Harbor gives it up, it goes to the next person on the list, usually recreational. Considering the vast amount of recreational users looking for a mooring, many feel the days of a commercial fishery are numbered.
Commercial fishermen across the Cape have lamented running a business from a trailer and how the lack of mooring infrastructure limits potential for another generation of fishermen.
Trailering boats comes with headaches. With parking and unloading permits they can be looking at $400 just to get access to the water. Most fishermen have two trailers and two skiffs because of repairs involved.
And parking isn’t guaranteed. Rogan has arrived early to work in the summer to find no parking. He ends up at the Barnstable County Court House walking a mile to the landing.
“The tide doesn’t wait. I have yet to lose a day, but I have come close a couple of times,” Rogan said.
The most popular ramp – Blish Point Ramp – state-owned and town-run, sometimes shuts down for an hour at low tide.
DJ Crook has owned SandSpit Oyster Company for seven years and grows oysters and clams. For five years he did everything himself. Last year he did well enough to hire a person to help, this year that number has grown to two.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“There are tons of different ways to make our stress levels go down,” he said. “I don’t have 20 years to wait for a mooring ball. I show up two hours early to get a parking space.”
Crook, a lifelong Cape Codder, worked at a farm in Grafton for years, switched from vegetables to shellfish, and has no intention of switching back.
“This week we had morning tides,” he said. “I am launching a 30-foot boat at 4:30 a.m. at dead low tide. My axles drag on the pavers, but I have to get out.”
He added he’s ruined one trailer prematurely and expects it’s not the last.
Getting off the water with product can also be a nightmare. There is a hoist for unloading at Barnstable Harbor, but most say it is unusable. Other landings, including Hyannis Harbor, don’t have one at all.
Crook has 15 minutes to get the boat out and in the summer he can’t always find a spot, so he will pull his boat onto the beach to avoid clogging the ramp.
Crook has always managed to get his 1400 pounds or so of steamers, or other product, to his buyer in short order, but the worry is there. So now he ices product on the boat, brings it in and re-ices it, to make sure the temperature stays down.
He bought a $10,000 ice machine last year to keep up.
Until earlier this month, they were able to meet their buyer on a nearby grass parking area. The state has disallowed that so shellfishermen see greater problems at the landings as box trucks jockey for position.
Crook has spoken to shellfish constable Amy Croteau, universally complimented, about what other towns do for their shellfishermen. Turns out it’s a lot, he said.
Even some flexibility in the cold weather would be a help. Rogan helps a friend move his gear off the flats in the winter, when ice can turn it into modern metal sculpture.
But they have to take the gear back to his storage area in Sagamore. If the town allowed them to stage it in one of the lots, even for a day or two, it would make a big difference.
There are economic reasons to make the changes, Barnstable is the fourth highest grossing port in the state for commercial fisheries, and a lot of that has to do with aquaculture and oysters.
Barnstable is often trailing just behind the oyster mecca of Wellfleet and some grant holders believe if there were aquaculture moorings businesses would be more efficient.
Several commercial fishermen have joined town committees, adding their voices to a number of young commercial fishermen who have begun shoveling against the proverbial tide. They have no plans to get out of the fisheries, even though they could.
Rogan, a Barnstable High graduate, has Coast Guard certification, a Captain’s license and other maritime qualifications from a two-year program at a maritime academy.
“They are good to have, but I don’t plan to do anything but fishing,” he said.