By Doreen Leggett
John Pappalardo looked out at a sea of smiling people who had just finished a traditional Cape Cod clambake, put together by Backside Bakes, under a white tent beside the historic Captain Harding House in Chatham, home of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
Quite a difference from when the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser got started 20 years ago in a 10-by-10 tent pitched in a private yard, with lobster rolls and a couple of cases of beer.
“I spent three days shucking about 200 pounds of lobster,” he said to laughter.
Although the Fishermen’s Alliance has grown exponentially in 30 years – without COVID’s impact, the hooker’s ball regularly draws 700 people – the mission of protecting fish and fishermen has not changed.
One of the founders of the organization, Captain Mark Leach, is still a member today, as is his son, Sean, who followed his father into fishing and just had a new boat built for his growing business.
“I went to college and decided I would take one year of fishing before I got into a real career, but that was about 40 years ago so I guess I am going to be a fisherman for life,” Mark said.
He added that if Sean has kids (which prompted some chuckles from the audience), they could start on the deck of their dad’s boat, just like Sean did with him. There would also be room for Sean’s young nephews, the oldest going into first grade. Or, as Mark added, “maybe they’ll be on my boat if I haven’t retired yet.”
The two fishermen were featured in this year’s video, which was shown at the event to 100 people and also viewed at home by hundreds more on YouTube. Mark and Sean talked about how the Fishermen’s Alliance has helped over the years — and provided the lobsters the crowd enjoyed.
Mark said one big challenge for fishermen has been getting capital they need to invest to build a successful career, but the Fishermen’s Alliance, with resources and relationships to financial institutions, has made the path easier.
“I know quite a few fishermen who have gotten their businesses up and running because of that; they’ve been a very helpful group,” he said of the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Pappalardo said the reason the organization has been so successful is because of community support. The Hookers Ball is the non-profit’s biggest fundraiser and raised more than $150,000 this year to help continue important programs, including the haddock chowder initiative that was launched during COVID to keep fishermen on the water and provide nutritious meals to a growing number of food bank clients.
“The organization was born in crisis and has weathered many more by creating partnerships and long-lasting solutions that build community resiliency and healthy oceans,” Pappalardo said. “In 30 years, we have realized that good things can take a long time – your steadfast support allows us to persevere and win.”
He explained that community support helps the Fishermen’s Alliance move quickly, as it did with the haddock chowder program, and have the staying power for the long game.
Most don’t realize how arcane and labor-intensive fisheries management can be.
“We pass rules that are 2000 pages,” said Pappalardo, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council.
He reminded the group of the massive infrastructure bill that Congress has been working on; “we write one of those a year.”
Pappalardo talked about number of successful initiatives, including a 10-year effort to improve accountability – and in turn science and fishermen’s livelihoods – as well as a 15-year campaign to protect herring, a vital forage fish, from destructive midwater trawlers.
A buffer zone to protect herring and habitat closer to shore has already made a difference, Pappalardo said.
Fishermen on the Cape and beyond say they have seen more forage fish that tuna, haddock, and other larger species rely on. And for the first time in recent memory at this time of year, local fishermen have been catching mackerel.
Those hearing Pappalardo’s overview included new supporters in the crowd, as well as veteran Hookers Ball fans.
Eva Japowicz moved to Chatham in 2000 and said she may have missed the first ball, but she and her friend of more than 50 years, Dorothy Baron, always attend.
Baron said the ball is her “last hurrah” of a three-week vacation before heading home to New Jersey, she wouldn’t miss it.
“Enjoyed every one,” said Japowicz with a smile.