Plenty of Fish in the Sea, but Red Tape Keeps Them There
Written by Alex Elvin, Photos by Jeanna Shepard
Wes Brighton looked out the window of his 40-foot fishing boat the Martha Elizabeth — among the largest docked at Menemsha harbor on Monday evening — at the picturesque shacks and wooden piles lining the dock behind the fish markets.
“Every vacationer makes Menemsha at least one night on their two-week vacation,” he said, ticking off the benefits of commercial fishing to the Island.
A group of young fishermen farther down the dock chatted quietly about day-to-day business. To the north, a crowd of visitors on the beach grew as the sun neared the horizon.
“It’s a year-round job that doesn’t actually entail a direct relation to tourism and the building industry,” Mr. Brighton said. And while most of the locally-caught fish is exported, most fishermen live here year-round and their profits stay in the community.
Across the harbor, the famed Unicorn dragger, now rusted and unseaworthy, glowed in the sunlight, a reminder of brighter days for the Island fishing industry.
The decay of the Unicorn, and that of her sister ship, the Quitsa Strider II (now gone), has little to do with a lack of fish, Mr. Brighton said. Instead, he said, the main struggle for fishermen these days involves the array of state and federal regulations and the ever-increasing costs associated with a way of life as old as the Island itself.
“It’s because we lost our access to those fish,” Mr. Brighton said. “And if we want to feed our community fresh, local product that’s sustainably harvested we need access and we need to get back in.”
Many of the fisheries around the Vineyard have declined as a result of commercial fishing. In 2009 a new regulatory system based on sectors and annual quotas replaced the previous system, which worked by limiting fishing trips and days at sea. But the new system tends to favor larger companies that can afford to purchase quota from other fishermen and reinvest in equipment.
The fisheries have largely rebounded, Mr. Brighton said, but the Island’s commercial fishing fleet is struggling to compete with companies in New Bedford and other large fishing ports in New England.
Along the coast, however, community groups have emerged to reclaim some of the access to their local waters. The Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, a small group of fishermen, businessmen and others, is now working to establish a permit bank to make permits and quota affordable and keep them in the community.
The most active fisheries on the Vineyard — conch, lobster and monkfish — are managed by limited access (only a certain number of permits are issued). But groundfish, which include cod, flounder, haddock and other bottom-dwelling species, are regulated in part by quotas, which can be bought and sold on the open market. As one project, the trust plans to raise money through loans, grants and donations to buy quotas and lease them to fisherman at an affordable rate.
Obtaining a quota, however, requires first obtaining a state or federal permit, and most permits are already in use, placing them in high demand. A conch permit, for example, might sell for $40,000. A monkfish permit might exceed $50,000. A full-time scalloping permit for a large boat could easily run in the millions.