By John Pappalardo
Even after a year that will be remembered as one of the most challenging in our lifetimes, there are good things to hold onto and play forward. This is not one of those “glass half full” comments. It’s more a celebration of resilience and creativity, strengths that have always defined Cape Cod’s fishing community, attributes that take on even more importance as thing get tougher.
So I thought I’d usher out 2020 – can’t say I’ll miss that calendar too much – and usher in 2021 with a handful of positives. Call them accomplishments. Call them tacks, pivots. Call them building blocks.
Call them facts:
The fleet hung tough: In March, April, and May, there was serious question whether the fleet could survive. Fish buyers and wholesalers, essential even as their relationships with fishermen have always had a love-hate aspect, were seeing the bottom fall out. Overseas demand vanished as shipping became difficult if not impossible. Restaurants shuttered, removing many high-end customers so valuable to the high-quality fleet. Fish processors were having a hard time staying open given the distancing demands of a contagious pandemic. Yet by June and July it slowly became clear that a virus was not going to destroy this fleet. Stressed? Yes. Challenged? Yes. But fishermen adapted, and markets began to recover and re-shape. As essential workers feeding our nation, and others, fishermen stayed on the water.
Deck to kitchen: Some wags took to calling it “boat to throat,” a fun description too. What mattered was that the oldest, most traditional way of selling fish came back in vogue; people headed down to the docks, meeting captains and crew, to buy the freshest fish in the world. This worked especially well for scallops because they arrive at the port ready to go, lobsters too. There were more challenges for finfish because public health rules prohibit filleting and processing on deck. But whole fish could move, and did. The fundamental experience of seeing who catches the fish we eat, face to face (even with masks on), was a major plus. Here’s hoping those opportunities continue long after this pandemic is beaten.
Cooking up a storm: A lot of people are a little intimidated by the thought of cooking seafood, thinking that it’s complicated or delicate, easy to ruin, better to leave the prep to the great chefs around us. And those chefs make magic, but with restaurant capacity curtailed, many people got over their fears, and realized that cooking seafood does not require a four-star rating. Start with great fish, and keep one idea in mind whether you’re baking, laying it on a skillet, or firing up the grill: Don’t overdo it. All summer, we heard satisfaction on this point, and while we can’t wait to get back to our favorite haunts, there was something beautiful in seeing people gain confidence in handling and preparing an iconic harvest.
Young fishermen getting a leg up: Despite the transition and mayhem in Washington, we got a huge win in the last days of the year, just before Congress adjourned. The Young Fishermen’s Development Act, legislation we had been pushing for years, finally passed. It was a bi-partisan effort, from Democrats in Massachusetts to Republicans in Alaska, the kind of cooperation that has become an endangered species in D.C. A federal program now poised will commit $2 million a year to train and qualify people around the country interested in becoming fishermen. Our own training program, funded partly from the state, had to be put on hold but is sure to resurrect and expand as soon as we can get back to hands-on teaching and training. The pandemic’s impact no doubt created urgency to get this great bill over the finish line and to the president’s desk, hopefully for his signature.
State public officials stepping up: Many public officials are dedicated, honest, and public-spirited, but sometimes they wind up distrusted, in adversarial positions to the very people they are supposed to be supporting. But since COVID, I think a lot of fishermen and people in the fishing industry have seen the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in a new light. Getting special permits for fishermen to sell at the dock, moving federal aid out of the bureaucracy and into the ports as quickly and fairly as possible, being flat-out responsive and engaged, DMF has been walking the walk and a lot of people are recognizing that. Maybe it takes an external threat to heighten appreciation for common goals and core beliefs.
And when in doubt, make chowder: Since launching our chowder program in September, with a mission to pay fishermen a fair, predictable price for plentiful smaller haddock while helping meet the crisis every food bank and pantry is facing, we have been blown away by the amazing success and outpouring of support. As the year ends we have donated and distributed about 80,000 containers of haddock chowder, each 18 ounces or roughly three servings, meaning 240,000 cups. From small community kitchens on-Cape to food banks and pantries across the state to food banks in New Hampshire and Maine, the reception has been phenomenal. For as long as we have funds, for as long as fishermen can catch’em, for as long as the fillet house can cut and the chowder maker can cook, we’ll keep this going – because we know the demand and need is growing.
So maybe Charles Dickens captured it well: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Here’s hoping the balance shifts yet more in our favor in 2021.