By Doreen Leggett
Timing is everything, the old adage goes, and in this case it was bad.
In March, with COVID-19 upending businesses and knocking out markets for fishermen, the Provincetown Public Pier Corporation (PPPC), which manages the town’s wharf, sent out a notice: fees were going to change.
Not only that, but the changes – which almost everyone took to mean hikes – were going to be discussed virtually. Dock allocation at MacMillan Wharf was on the agenda too and commercial fishermen were worried about being pushed out.
“Uncool,” summed up long-time lobsterman Dana Pazolt.
He said the meeting wasn’t noticed correctly. The appropriate timeframes, required by the state open meeting laws, hadn’t been followed, he argued.
“Needless to say everyone’s hackles went up,” Pazolt said.
There was some concern that by protesting, people could put their slips, and livelihoods, in jeopardy. Perhaps office staff would become less lenient in an emergency, or flexibility could evaporate. Fishermen said there were also were proposals for new criteria; no bad language at the pier, no bait.
Word reached state Division of Marine Fisheries and Acting Director Dan McKiernan, who responded with a strong letter:
“The fishing industry is currently in an unprecedented crisis with the loss of seafood demand due to the ongoing Covid-19 emergency,” McKiernan wrote. “This is not the time to further disrupt the business plans of these vulnerable commercial fishermen ….rather this is the time for all of us to come to the aid of these businesses and their employees with whatever solutions we can devise to ease their pain in what will be the most challenging fishing year of their lifetime.”
Pazolt said he doesn’t always agree with McKiernan, but respects him and appreciated the support at what was shaping up to be an agonizing time.
“Right now we don’t know if we even have an industry,” he added.
What worried him further is that it was unclear what the changes would invite. There were concerns that fishermen who live out of town, would be hit hard even if they had been working out of slips in town for many years – or, in Pazolt’s case, “since Christ was an altar boy.”
“Nothing was spelled out,” said Pazolt. “They were not transparent.”
McKiernan also touched on that in his letter:
“These changes of higher fees and/or reduced access for non-resident commercial fishermen could be devastating for some long-time well established commercial fishermen who have depended on Provincetown as their homeport for decades,” he wrote.
The pier corporation responded quickly to McKiernan’s concerns. Regina Binder, chair of the pier corporation, said her committee shares McKiernan’s concerns about the economic difficulties facing the “valuable and vulnerable” industry.
She added that some of the issues McKiernan outlined may have been based on incomplete information; they had cancelled the meeting in question before his letter was received. Binder wrote that if the meeting had been held, tenants would have learned that the rate increases would have been deferred for 120 days.
“We would like to address the mischaracterization that the PPPC was ‘minimizing public input’ and not fully engaging fishery participants – these allegations could not be further from the truth,” responded Binder. “In the past seven months, the PPPC reached out to tenants, held stakeholder meetings and work sessions about proposed changes. The PPPC went so far as to ask tenants to form an advisory group to work with PPPC. At that meeting, our offer was declined.”
At the time, fishermen understood that to mean they would have to decide which fishermen would be pushed off the pier.
For now, everything is on hold, pending some kind of return to normalcy in the aftermath of this epidemic.
Doug Boulanger, the new manager at the pier, said he has been in regular communication with commercial fishermen and the majority of concerns have been addressed and they are working together to make this year as smooth as possible, considering the pandemic.
“We are trying to make sure we are getting everyone back to the docks,” he said.
Some of the problems were the result of a misunderstanding he said, explaining that the rules and regulations have remained status quo. In the past, he said, there had been a grey area and things that weren’t allowed were able to slide by.
“We are aren’t really changing anything. We are reminding people of the rules and regulations that have been there for 10 or 15 years,” Boulanger said.
There remains confusion about what changes might be in store. Fishermen say they have seen nothing on paper and that the pier corporation is trying to run the wharf like a marina.
“They should say what they are considering and why,” Pazolt said.
Pazolt understands that rates are likely to increase because the pier has been substantially rebuilt to the tune of $4.5 million, the majority grant funded. He added that an increase of 2.5 percent, which had been discussed, was amenable, but it didn’t seem to be going that way.
Fishermen do understand that the pier corporation is under pressure from the town to, if not make money, at least not lose as much.
“You are a business, and you have been directed by your boss to come closer to reality when it comes to profit and loss,” said Rich Wood, captain of Beth Ann charters, who has been on the pier for close to 20 years and was once a member of the pier corporation.
Wood helped organize a campaign to pressure the pier corporation to delay the virtual hearing, and wrote them a thank you note when they did. Wood was not convinced the postponement would have happened without fishermen coming together.
There was also talk about commercial fishermen needing to go to greater lengths to prove they were qualified based on their landings and effort.
Private business information typically blacked out on applications might now be required. Pazolt said he shares his trip reports, but even the IRS doesn’t get his specific landings. If fishermen can’t produce 40 trip slips then they can lose price support for their slip space.
“The way they have behaved makes me very suspicious,” Pazolt said.
And, others have argued, there are fishermen who make a substantial amount of their income from fishing, but they may bang nails in the winter and they may not make 40 trips. And for those who depend on tuna and striped bass, they won’t have that many bills of sales to dealers, especially now.
Then there was the specter that slip eligibility would be reviewed every year and if another fisherman could prove he had more trips, he could take over a slip. That could wreak havoc on a business plan.
Plus, now that the pier is vastly improved, more people might want in, possibly leading to gentrification.
There was a lot of discussion on the dock, but no one knew how much the rates would increase, what the new classification for commercial fishing would be or if there would be an annual review. And no one was answering e-mails, fishermen said.
Last week, the pier corporation had a meeting that the public could call into, but no decisions can be made until a public hearing can be held.
The ironic part is that officials used the presence of the commercial fleet to qualify for funding needed improvements.
“We had nothing for years,” Pazolt said. “We are the guys they used to get the funding.”
McKiernan is one of many who emphasized how important Provincetown is as a commercial port because of the economic multipliers that accompany the landings.
“Provincetown’s commercial landings generate over $20 million in overall economic activity,” he wrote.
McKiernan also took the opportunity to offer his office’s help to come up with new initiatives. He noted that the state had worked with other municipalities to devise rational ways to allocate slips and moorings in an equitable way that ensures “the precious berthing areas are preserved for commercial fishery participants at rates that do not drive the vessels out of business.”
He also let members know about a major port study project being worked on by the state, UMASS Boston Urban Harbors Institute, and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. The report will describe each town’s commercial profile and highlight trends, which he hopes will help the pier corporation plan for the future.
“You have the opportunity – and I believe the responsibility – to help us maintain this economically important but fragile fleet,” McKiernan wrote.