By Doreen Leggett
When Sasha Tomasek-Little came to the Cape more than five years ago from farm country in Connecticut, she was struck by the ocean and fishermen who build their lives on it.
“It was mind-blowing how hard they work and the brotherhood,” Tomasek-Little said.
She was surprised the industry wasn’t celebrated more. Coming from a marketing and public relations background it seemed to her there is a wealth of knowledge and stories to share, along with the local catch.
“It’s not just where your food comes from, but the people behind it,” Tomasek-Little said.
She became close to one fisherman, Tyler Tomasek. But she was wary of a deeper relationship.
“He was a bit of a wild card and I wasn’t ready to take the gamble,” she said with a laugh.
They did get married a few years ago; Tomasek had left behind a history of drugs and some jail time. But having lost a brother to addiction, she worried about others.
“Another thing I wanted to bring attention to is addiction in the fisheries,” she said.
So this year she started Cape Cod Fishermen’s Wives, a group she hopes can help fishermen connect with community and with services they need to succeed. Those connections can range from posts on Facebook highlighting individual boats to linking fishermen with dentists, accountants and mental health professionals.
Tomasek is on board.
“He supports everything I do,” Tomasek-Little said. “I just want these people to be seen.”
She has put her artistic, graphic design and video skills to work. The Cape Cod Fishermen’s Wives Facebook page offers fishermen lingo (for example “rain box” means shower), videos of work at sea and images of dolphins, baby octopuses and other creatures fishermen see close up.
“There is so much to learn and see,” she said. She is hoping to share pictures of antique bottles that come up in the scallop dredge.
Tomasek- Little has also made t-shirts and sweatshirts with scallop knives with the saying “fat tows and heavy crates,” as well as towels and pins with different designs, including scallop shells.
“I am trying to create merchandise that represents the commercial fishing industry of Cape Cod accurately,” Tomasek-Little said.
Ten percent of sales go to the Fishermen’s Fund that she set up.
She is more than happy to join forces with other groups and her interest comes at a time that Women of Fishing Families, WOFF, is rebooting.
Started in 2006, using the symbol of a pink boot to raise awareness about fishing family and industry issues, WOFF offers confidential emergency financial assistance, long-term financial planning, and connects fishing families to resources. Fishing Partnership, which has an office in Chatham, also helps fishing families navigate healthcare and financial planning.
With the pandemic in the rearview, WOFF plans to get back to events that showcase the industry, including the Blessing of the Fleet in Chatham and the fishermen’s Olympics at the maritime festival.
“We are really missing that celebration of our fishing community,” said Karen Murdoch, one of the founders.
Murdoch, the wife of a fisherman, is excited about the launch of Cape Cod Fishermen’s Wives.
“The more girl power the better,” Murdoch said with a laugh.
WOFF, which gives out scholarships and helps with other needs like childcare and grocery expenses, started when many of the participants were young mothers. Now their children are older and Murdoch is looking forward to the energy a younger generation will bring.
Sasha and Tyler’s son Axel is two, and was on boats before he was born.
“When I was hugely pregnant they would lift me over the rails,” the ebullient blonde said.
“Tyler has been fishing for 30 years and the cool thing is he knows everyone,” Tomasek-Little explained. “A lot of fishermen have a rough reputation, but they have huge hearts.”
Tomasek hopped on fishing boats a bit later than Axel, but he was always drawn to the ocean.
“The ocean is in his blood. He is never going to change,” Tomasek-Little said.
Tomasek had joined her in the kitchen of the antique house they rent in Orleans as she passed him a cup of tea.
He crews on the Isabel and Lilee, captained by Chris Merl, and had gotten in the day before. They had a newer guy on the boat, so he had to cut more scallops. His arms were red and swollen when he got back.
Hearing Sasha’s conversation, Tyler said he thought a fishermen’s Olympics and a scallop festival would be great.
“It’s not only entertaining, but people would learn something,” he said.
She smiled and said Axel was over the moon that his dad got to wake him up that morning.
“He could be gone for two days, sleep 12 hours, and then go out again,” Tomasek-Little said.
Tomasek was born in Sandwich, came down to the Lower Cape in his teens and started his career in the fisheries in Chatham.
He cut clams for Royce Bassett and met people Axel calls uncle today, including William “Chopper” Young.
In the early 1990s, sea clamming was huge, Tomasek said. He dropped out of high school and was making $150 a day, “which was cool back then.”
He met Joe Thomas – owner of the Miss Heather – who introduced him to Buddy Paine and he hopped on that boat.
“We were making boatloads of money,” Tomasek said, adding that he also worked on the Lisa Anne. “I clammed for many moons.”
“I still learn stuff about Tyler all the time,” Tomasek- Little said. “He has so many stories.”
He watched scallop boats come in and offered to cut, teaching himself. He fished for awhile, but he was friends with two brothers from Wyoming. They decided to go back and work on oil and gas rigs and he went with them.
Tomasek said he ended up going to jail there, on a drug charge, for several years.
Tomasek- Little says prison put Tomasek on a better path. He read a lot, got his GED and stayed off drugs.
Although there is a stigma associated with commercial fishermen and drug use, and problems with drug use across the peninsula, Little- Tomasek doesn’t shy away from it.
She would rather people talk about it so fishermen can get support. Commercial fishing can be really hard on the body. Often painkillers are prescribed for injuries and there isn’t adequate follow-up by health professionals, or fishermen have to work through an injury.
There are other stressors; the dangerous job, holes in a community when vessels go down, unpredictability of regulations. They add up.
A study of two Massachusetts off-Cape ports has shown commercial fishermen are four times more likely to die from opioid poisoning than non-fishermen living in the same ports. They are twice as likely to die of diseases of despair, categorized as poisoning, chronic liver disease and suicide.
“In the years 2000–2014, 693 commercial fishermen died from occupational causes in U.S. fisheries, 225 of which were in the northeast states. Fifty occurred in the Atlantic scalloping fishery,” the study by Scott Fulman et al stated.
Monique Coombs, a fisherman’s wife, and director of community programs for Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, has been working to start a wellness program for fishermen for years.
“We kept hitting walls. Fishermen are suffering. Isn’t that proof of concept?” she said.
They recently received a grant that helped MCFA start a mental health support program Coombs hopes to broaden.
Commercial fishermen don’t have support like Farm Aid, which started to help draw attention to family farmers losing farms. Farm Aid concerts raise money for relief, legal help and to address mental health.
Fishermen often find themselves in similar situations. Coombs mentioned one major challenge: proposed regulations to decrease vertical lines in the water by 90 percent to help protect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. That could become a death knell for the lobster industry.
“There will be a crisis of identity, potential increase in suicide, a definite mental health epidemic,” Coombs said.
While Tomasek was out West, he was talking to friends back home and heard that scallop prices had jumped from $3 to $9 a pound. So he returned in 2010.
He started in Provincetown, on the Pat Sea, Chris Fortune’s boat.
“He was a really, really good dude,” he said of Fortune, who has passed away.
Tomasek was determined to get on one of the trip boats out of New Bedford and did.
“I made a million … but I was never around,” he said.
Tomasek, in addition to working with friend Joe Thomas’ tree company, then made his way back to the small boats of the Cape.
He fished with James Gray on the scalloper Bada Bing and most recently on the Donna Marie out of Provincetown.
Everyone has to work as a team on a boat, Tomasek said, you have to have the back of everyone onboard.
Tomasek-Little said Cape Cod Fishermen’s Wives is based on that premise, on shore.
“It’s a lot like fishing. Your partner is your anchor and your lines and your hope to get home,” she said.
To learn more, www.capefishwives.com.