By Doreen Leggett
After years of research, discussions, and painstaking planning, the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust had a rather unusual beginning.
Paul Parker, executive director at the time, was on his second date with his future wife when they met a fisherman just off the highway.
“I remember bringing a $315,000 check to a rest stop in New Hampshire and he handed me a bill of sale,” Parker said.
That sale was the first of many, mostly funded by loans from foundations and local banks as well as donations from Hookers Ball attendees and others who thought protecting the Cape’s small boat fishery was worth the investment.
The purchase of permits, or more specifically quota on permits — cod, haddock, pollock, redfish, hake, blackback flounder and others – was meant to keep Cape fishermen fishing. The quota, kept in a “bank,” would be leased locally at a reduced rate.
The experiment, the first in New England, worked. Now there are several permit banks in the region: Maine, Boston, Gloucester, Martha’s Vineyard, and fishermen are trying to start one in New Bedford.
And Parker, having moved on from the trust in 2017, founded a national organization, Catch Together. It invests capital to support fishermen, fishing communities and ocean conservation and helps establish more permit banks, tailored to the needs of communities around the world.
“I came strongly to believe what we were doing with quotas and organizing fisheries had value and could be replicated,” Parker said, having recently travelled to London to talk about his work and then to British Columbia to help set up a permit bank.
The premise is the same as when it all began at the truck stop.
“When I moved to Cape Cod, fishermen talked about how they used to be the business center, the most respected people in their communities, and we hope to get back to that,” he has said more than once.
Although the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust now helps, on average, 30 fishing vessels that employ 100 captains and crew every year, its success was initially uncertain. More than a decade ago a new management structure was put in place and fishermen across New England were given shares of each fish species based on catch history (which wasn’t always accurate). Catch shares had been used in other parts of the country already, not always successfully.
The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, which Parker led, opposed the catch share idea for years. “We were the point of the spear on it,” Parker said. “But when they were implemented, we made the decision to work within the system. The decision was made by the board of directors.”
John Pappalardo, who partnered with Parker for years and is now the chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, said Parker “is usually operating three steps ahead of the people around him,” and saw a future under a catch share system without protections, didn’t like it, and decided to try to do something.
Parker believed if too many Cape fishermen sold their shares, the local, small-boat industry would disappear, and it wouldn’t come back.
Holding onto quota guaranteed access and economic success. Parker preferred that power be in a community trust, not with a corporation. Having a permit bank protected more than current fishermen, it protected the fishing community by keeping the quota on Cape for the future.
“It all starts with owning quota and having access,” Pappalardo said.
In places like Alaska, Maine and Cape Cod, fishing has always been a way of life. “The way we connect with and interact with the ocean defines who we are, defines our communities,” Parker said.
The question, he added, is how to continue that fishing tale, how to support fishermen as they deal with changes. In this moment, during Parker’s time, that meant giving small boat fishermen access to capital that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Parker began his fishing advocacy work on the Cape in 1997 when he was introduced to what at the time was the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. Mark Leach, a fisherman and president of the board of directors at the time, hired him.
“He was really into the fisheries,” Leach said. “It was a good combination right off the bat.”
Another perk was that he didn’t mind not being paid.
“We didn’t have a lot of money to pay people and needed someone for fundraising and he is good at that,” Leach said.
Leach said Parker and all the early employees didn’t draw a paycheck for years. They fished. Parker fished on a lot of different boats, including Leach’s.
“It was always an easy day with him on the boat,” Leach said.
Parker’s grandmother had a house on Chatham’s Morris Island so he ended up living in her basement.
Parker was from the inland community of Concord, a soccer and hockey player, but he had come to the Cape as a kid and he started fishing early. His parents always encouraged him and before he was 10 he was selling raspberries from the family garden in Concord and when in Chatham, he sold the scup and bluefish he had caught.
Spending a lot of time in communities that depended on the sea, not only on the Cape but through his graduate work in Panama and other areas, influenced his world view.
Parker fished through 2005, mostly longlining, a little bit of gillnetting. He much preferred fishing to being in the office.
“I loved working with the fishermen,” Parker said.
Fisheries management was in turmoil. There were battles and it was mostly small boat Davids against bigger Goliaths.
“Certainly on groundfish the alternatives were bleak,” said Parker. “The quota reductions were substantial. There were very short seasons.”
Parker and Pappalardo spent a lot of time in meeting rooms and often trekked to D.C.
“We rented a car one time because neither of our cars could make it,” Parker said with a smile.
The time was difficult for fishermen across the nation, but changes were more keenly felt on the Cape, which had always been a successful small boat community. To better advocate for the fleet, not only the hook fishermen, the organization opened to all gear types and became what it is today, the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Parker had seen what other organizations tried to do to protect local communities:
“Around the country and around the world there are examples of organizations that manage quota to meet economic interest and needs. There are other iterations of the model to look at and get ideas.”
In Gloucester there had been talk of something like a permit bank to offset the damage foreseen by a new liquefied natural gas plant, which was ultimately not built. In Alaska, fishermen were working under individual transferable quotas, a type of catch share, for halibut.
“There were some communities there that were doing some economic development with quota,” said Parker. “We needed to come up with something that made it more likely that fishermen on the Cape would survive.
“The fishermen who were involved at that time were really engaged and involved in the process. It felt like we were all fighting for the same thing.”
Those who know him well say Parker has two qualities that served the trust: razor sharp smarts and a certain prescience.
The success of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust also was partially the result of Parker knowing markets and making deals. Friends say he could have been hedge fund manager and made millions, but he wasn’t interested.
When Parker and others decided to launch the trust he initially wanted to raise $10 million. Then the economy fell apart as the housing bubble burst. So the bar was lowered to $4 million and although the trust was initially meant to help groundfishermen, scallopers asked to become part of the process as well.
Pappalardo said the dividends are clear. He said a lot of scallopers have used the trust to build their businesses, others have started businesses, still others diversify, relying on scallops seasonally and pursuing other fisheries.
Many credit Parker with securing enough funding to move forward.
“He is a salesman,” said Pappalardo. “What he did that was unique was that he packaged the need, the opportunity and the outcome in a way that made sense.”
Before the first funds were in the door Parker and others had already developed a strategic plan that laid out what the lease revenue would be used for once the initial loans were paid off. The money from the lease payments would fund science, research, policy work and marketing – all factors that play into a sustainable fishery.
John King, a Chatham resident and entrepreneur, was tapped for advice. He remembers asking the group to map out the future and support the growth of well-run businesses.
But before that he invested in the idea.
“We were believers,” said King of himself and his wife Pam.
King, well-known for his photographs and being at the helm of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s research boat as well as on its board, had been a salmon fisherman in Alaska, one of his many former lives.
King sold that permit and the money went into the trust.
“The right thing to do was give back,” he said.
Parker was also raising capital. He had a bit of a renegade persona; he looked like he was straight off the boat, because he was, but he had uncanny people skills.
“It was disarming,” King said.
Parker said gaining support for the trust was aided by the age-old belief, particularly in Chatham, that fishermen are community leaders and agents of change on the water.
When the Fisheries Trust was well on its way to success, Parker began starting Catch Together to help replicate the idea.
One beneficiary is close by; he helped the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust purchase sea scallop quota.
“This program has allowed us to assist our last remaining sea scallop fisherman, to provide the potential and incentive for more fishermen to enter into the sea scallop fishery, to have a voice at the policy table, and to create a direct way to promote local seafood landings,” said Shelley Edmondson, executive director of the trust.
Another in the Gulf of Mexico helps fishermen solve a problem that many had thought insurmountable: the quota bank reduces discards, keeps fishermen on the water and builds another generation of leaders.
“Thanks to his visionary spirit, business acumen, and strong connection to commercial fishing, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Quota Bank has been in operation for six years and is the only program of its kind from Texas to Florida,” said Eric Brazer, Deputy Director of the Gulf of Mexico Shareholder’s Alliance.
Although he has a family with two young boys now, Parker doesn’t feel all that different than when he started thinking about the trust 15 years ago.
“The things that excite me are the same things that have always excited me – helping small, independent fishing businesses thrive and reinvent themselves,” he said. “It’s been challenging work, but it is something I really believe in.”