By Doreen Leggett
Caitlin “Caity” Townsend sat in a shaft of sunlight and turned over a lichen-colored, plastic knife handle imprinted with the word “Waterhaul.”
The five-inch object was created from recycled fishing gear and represents the strength and tradition of commercial fisheries as well as its sustainable future – like Townsend herself.
Hired late last year, Townsend is Massachusetts’ first representative of a business called “Net Your Problem,” started in 2015 by Nicole Baker, a former fisheries observer, to find a way to recycle old fishing gear and combat climate change at the same time.
“Caity is proof that the rugged work of fishing and innovative ideas for sustainability are not mutually exclusive,” said Stephanie Sykes, a fisherman who told Townsend about the new opportunity.
Townsend had spent the day in New Bedford earlier that week going through “end-of-life” gear that had been dropped off at Net Your Problem’s facility on King Street. They take everything from gillnet web to float line from pot gear, soft buoys to codends from dragger nets.
The materials are sorted and sent to recyclers who make products such as Townsend’s knife, sunglasses, and those little plastic insulation pellets. So far, she has taken in close to 10,000 pounds of net and 4,000 pounds of rope.
She is comfortable working with gear, and fixing inevitable machinery problems.
“There has to be some kind of end-of-life solution for fishing gear,” Townsend said. “You drive around and see gear. It is an issue, especially with regulation changes – you can’t sell it to another fishermen.”
Baker, the founder, started in Alaska. The program is bigger there – that week Net Your Problem had gotten word there was 29,000 pounds of gear for them to recycle in Kodiak.
For the foreseeable future Net Your Problem in Massachusetts is taking gear for free and Townsend is hoping more fishermen across the Cape take advantage.
“We have some rope made out of recycled fishing gear so it is like full circle – the circular economy at work,” she said.
She knows that fishermen want to protect the ocean because it’s the source of their livelihoods and their identity; Net Your Problem helps.
“I knew I wanted to do something along these lines – connecting science and fishermen together,” said Townsend, wearing a sky-blue sweater made of recycled oyster shells and a fish-buckle belt.
Townsend grew up in Truro fishing with her dad, who grew up fishing with his dad, whose parents were what you might call a professional fishing couple.
Chris Townsend, Caity’s father, said his grandparents Jack and Kay first came to Cape Cod chasing striped bass. Kay was a photographer, taking photos for the magazine Salt Water Sportsman, but she won her share of fishing awards, including a world record.
Caity associates her grandparents Dave and Beth with the ocean as well. While she was growing up they were working on Cabral Wharf in Provincetown.
Before that her granddad worked on the Shady Lady for Manny Phillips, who started the tuna seining industry in Provincetown.
The industry transitioned to rod and reel and the port became famous for landing giant tuna, and Caity remembers her granddad being a part of that too.
Her dad started working on the Shady Lady summers when he was 13 with his dad. Chris said he liked fishing, but he had a particular job in mind:
“My confession is kind of corny. I wanted to be captain of the Love Boat.”
With Merrill Stubing not relinquishing his helm, as the years went on Chris branched into other fisheries. A vessel tied up next to the Shady Lady went lobstering, so he went as a mate. He also started groundfishing, mostly for haddock and cod, with Tony Lemme.
“He was my mentor,” said Townsend.
Townsend had grown up winters off-Cape. He went to Keene State as a business major and for his senior thesis he came up with a vertically-integrated enterprise where he would own a commercial lobster boat, wholesale lobsters he caught and also sell them retail.
Coming back to the Cape a life-changing opportunity arose.
“This guy was selling his (lobster) permit, so I followed the business plan,” said Townsend.
He also opened a market and restaurant on Cabral Wharf, Townsend Lobster and Seafood Company.
His daughters, Caity and her younger sister Caroline, were in the thick of it.
“I have an awesome picture of them in the lobster tank using it as a play pen,” he said laughing.
Caity remembers the restaurant, which her dad and mom, Rebecca, an artist, ran. They sold it when she was about 12.
“He would lobster in the morning and then come back and work in the restaurant,” Caity said.
Caity began fishing in earnest as a teenager, fascinated by the industry long before that.
“As a kid I can remember constantly asking to go on a trip with him,” Caity said. “When I was growing up his boat was the Trevor Kane, named after the character in the Jimmy Buffet book, ‘Where is Joe Merchant?’ Jimmy Buffet lived in Provincetown.”
The boat is now called the Three Seas (for Caroline, Caitlin and Chris.)
Every year, Chris would take his daughters and friends on a fishing trip, usually in May or June, and typically for mackerel.
“Those are some of my fondest memories,” Caity said, adding that even today when she goes tuna fishing her favorite part is catching the bait.
Chris went groundfishing until the federal government began heavily regulating the industry under the Days at Sea program. Chris said the number of days he could fish dropped from 88 to 8 to 0.
At that point he concentrated on lobstering and sold his electric rod and reels. Caity said she was 13 at the time and was disappointed he had to sell them, but she still has a lot of rods her grandfather made for her.
“In high school I had odd jobs, but I mostly worked with my dad,” Caity said.
“She has salt water in her veins,” her dad said.
That history is the reason she is where she is today.
“It’s been my whole life,” she said. “Thinking of my dad not being a lobsterman would be detrimental to myself and my image of who I am.”
Caity graduated from Nauset Regional High School in 2017 and enrolled in the Marine Science, Safety and Environmental Protection program at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“I felt like I had a leg up, had real world experience,” Townsend said. “I could visualize what we talked about because I had seen it on the ocean.”
Townsend said that she intended to be an environmental officer on a variety of bigger boats. But she came home from Sea Term and COVID hit so everything changed.
Attending school remotely, reading “Cape Cod,” she re-traced the route of Henry David Thoreau.
“That changed my entire trajectory. I kept thinking I really love my home,” Caity said.
The trek across the Cape was so formative she named her rescue dog, and perpetual sidekick, Henrietta. She calls her Henny for short.
When she graduated she waitressed and bartended to pay the bills and began working with Laura Ludwig at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies collecting ghost gear, cleaning up marine debris and other projects. When she talked to other volunteers she found herself telling them about the fishing industry.
“I do really like to be a spokesperson for fishermen,” Caity said.
Caity applied for a position on the Provincetown Pier Corporation, which oversees MacMillan Wharf, but wasn’t chosen.
She said improvements need to be made at the wharf.
“If everyone is out fishing and there is only one crane working it slows everyone down,” she said. “You are waiting for two hours to offload and that’s just not sustainable.”
Chris ran trouble with the Truro planning board when he was trying to build an accessory apartment for his crew in 2018. He appealed and eventually won, but the process was long and onerous. Caity sat at many meetings with her dad.
“I saw the struggles my dad was having,” she said.
Caity didn’t think it should be that difficult to create affordable housing. So she ran for a seat on the planning board, and won by a landslide:
“There aren’t a lot of young people in Truro. I don’t think my generation has much of a voice.”
Since Net Your Problem is only a part-time job, Caity plans to work with her dad on the water this year.
Chris, whose nephew is his full-time crew member, just bought an offshore lobster permit to expand his business and catch Jonah crabs.
Since regulations keep lobstermen off the water for several months, he has been captaining yachts for charter in the Virgin Islands.
“He is gone all winter, but he comes home intermittently to do gear work,” she said. “I will help him with gear work, splicing, when I can.”
She is trying to raise awareness about Net Your Problem and just entered into a partnership for a rope swap program with the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
“I am excited to see where it is going,” she said. “I hope to fish with my dad at least a day or two a week this summer.”
Fishermen who want to learn more about the program or turn in gear can email Townsend at [email protected] or 774-316-0417.