By John Pappalardo
We were on our way to my first New England Fishery Management Council meeting, so must have been 1996, maybe 1997. Portland, Maine. A handful of Chatham fishermen and me were making the trek to see what we could do to keep codfishing alive in the face of amazing pressure, mainly from large boats pounding the bottom and taking out the stocks.
A pit stop was in order, so we pulled into a rest area in New Hampshire. As we were standing around waiting for everyone to take care of business, one of the fishermen eyed me curiously. After awhile he said something like, “Let me ask you a question: Why are you here?”
I understood what he was asking. I was a college-educated kid without deep connections to this place. I had come to our family summer home in Yarmouth after graduation and was teaching at the May Institute, a residential facility for kids with developmental challenges. I hadn’t grown up fishing. Why would I want to spend my time hanging around these guys, wading into their lives and controversies?
“Because I want to protect the codfish,” I stammered, “so when I retire from this job I can go fishing.”
I’ve thought about exchanges like that many times over the years, even more so as we reach the 30th anniversary of this Fishermen’s Alliance, decades passing, successes as well as frustrations piling up. Yet maybe the only thing I would change from that off-the-cuff answer long ago would be to replace the word “I” with “we.”
It sure as hell was different then, when Paul Parker talked me into coming to Chatham year-round to volunteer with him and support the fleet. We were hanging out in his grandma’s basement. My unpaid job was to provide a few hands and feet, a head, roll up my sleeves, listen hard and do what I could. We were working with jiggers and longliners who didn’t always get along, let alone their feelings about draggermen, scallopers and gillnetters. We had sued the federal government because we believed they weren’t doing their mandated job, to protect habitat and fish for us and future generations. We were self-righteous – at least I was. There was a lot of black and white.
Then again some things haven’t changed much. The independent, small-boat fleet survives, overcoming challenges no one could have predicted. Management policies, habitat and stock protection, still dominate the conversation. My title is different – originally I was something like “membership coordinator” – but almost 30 years later my role remains trying to support and advocate, with the belief that better decisions now will define a better future.
What also remains constant is the feeling that progress comes slowly, in halting steps, via a federal management process that can be convoluted, frustrating, and often thankless. I remember the first time I felt like we had worked that process. It was the late 1990s, and the mandate was to cut codfish landings, protect a crashing stock. We knew we needed to give up something, and realized that our best solution was to stop fishing in the month of May; that would create the necessary savings during the time of year when volume and price for our fleet was the lowest, so hurt us the least. Lo and behold the council adopted that option.
It wasn’t a high-profile, romantic success, but it set the stage for many more successes like it in the years ahead. They’re hard issues to hang your hat on, they often involve compromises we’d rather not make, but we remain committed to staying in it, doing what we can, and taking the hits if we don’t do enough.
Sometimes, working through documents and arguments at one more council meeting, trying to think strategically, remembering who we represent and why, I circle back to that short conversation more than 25 years ago in a New Hampshire rest stop. I’m not ready to retire yet, not by a long shot, but when I do, I still want us all to be able to go fishing.