Pier program is a constant in uncertain times
After visiting the observation deck at the Chatham Fish Pier, three siblings climbed around the metal sculpture honoring fishermen and talked about all they had learned.
Frances Leyshon, 8, was able to say what fish was coming in, dogfish, and “they filled the whole back of the boat.”
Emerson, 6, knew commercial lobstermen came in as well – and had gotten to see a boat unload.
And Grayson, 4, who like his siblings had a learning book clutched in his hand, agreed with his brother when he said, “I like seeing the seals and I like seeing all the boats.”
The trio are from Hopkinton, and had come to the fish pier with their mom and grandparents.
The pier, which can draw 200,000 visitors a year, was jam packed on a sunny Friday as many enjoyed the newly completed observation deck that opened in time for July 4.
“It’s a gift, the fish pier,” said Granddad Paul Gannon, who lives in Harwich Port. “Glad it’s open.”
Pier hosts, who happily answer questions from visitors like the Leyshons and pass out free learning books packed with fishy facts, had also been waiting for their opportunity to be on the top deck once again.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said pier host Gerald “Rick” Miszkin. “People from all over the world come. You get some good questions.”
Miszkin is a self-described old timer who has fished for everything from cod to tuna to sea bass, but mostly goes shellfishing today. He rattled off some of the questions he gets:
How long is typical day? Depends on what kind of fish they target.
What kind of gear do fishermen use? Gillnets, longlines, traps etc.
How far do they go? Just offshore for dogs, much farther for monkfish.
Where are the fish sold? Some locally, but dogfish and skates mostly go overseas.
He answers them all, “and they thank me,” he said.
He remembers a woman from Florida saying that one of her friends had heard that she was going to the Cape and she was told not to miss the Chatham Fish Pier.
“Ask for a guy named Rick and he’ll answer all the questions you want,” he said she was told.
Four fish pier hosts: Miszkin, Ken Eldredge, Mark Simonitsch and Mike Anderson, are long-time fishermen semi-retired, so they know about the industry’s past, present and future.
“We promote the fleet as much as possible,” Miszkin said. “Some people don’t know much about the water.”
They also know why the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance instituted the program, with grant help from various groups. There had been some talk in town about the fish pier being too loud, or smelly, the town being too, well, fishy.
“They must not have been local,” said Rick Wolf of Dennis as he sat at the Chatham Fish Pier Market, enjoying a meal in the shade.
But even locals appreciate the pier hosts. “Walking encyclopedias,” added his friend Brian Messier of Brewster.
Fishermen used the pier straight through the rebuild of the observation deck, which because of construction delays was closed all last summer. Fishermen, considered essential workers, also kept fishing through the unhappy surprise of the novel corona virus, but the pier hosts got a late start.
Because of the program’s popularity – it has been a mainstay since 2006 – the Fishermen’s Alliance decided to do a few virtual run-throughs at the pier on Shore Road.
Andrew O’Sullivan, an intern with the Fishermen’s Alliance, helped with filming a video and asked questions of pier host Anderson. Marianne Long, education coordinator for Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, was also there for one taping; AWSC and the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium have partnered with the Fishermen’s Alliance for the pier host program in recent years.
“I was surprised at how well it went,” said O’Sullivan, a Harwich resident and Nauset High School grad who is now a junior at UMass Amherst. “I was happy to be a part of it.”
He said that having pier hosts makes commercial fishing more personal. He hopes it will encourage more people to support the fleet.
“People just don’t know what they don’t know. If it’s on your mind, then you will go out and buy local fish,” he said.
O’ Sullivan is majoring in fisheries ecology. “I know a lot of science behind it, but it was interesting to hear the real world experience,” he added.
One of O’Sullivan’s questions was about the captain’s most interesting catch. It was answered in inimitable Anderson fashion:
“One time I caught a boot, a pair of pants and a sweatshirt. I was waiting for the body, but I never got it,” he said.
“The hosts have some intriguing stories,” said Brigid Krug, who oversees the program for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Interesting anecdotes are common at the pier and Krug said it is the knowledge and raconteur skills of the hosts that make it successful.
“Being able to ask someone questions in person and hear stories right from the fishermen is the big draw,” she said. “That has been the feedback we receive: people like to hear about the pier hosts’ experiences, see fishing boats coming in, ask whatever questions they have.”
Krug added that people are very curious about the fishing industry but rarely get a chance to learn more about it.
“People are interested in hearing some salty tales from fishermen because they have so much knowledge and history of the area,” said Krug. “It gives you a bit of insight into the industry and you get to see the fishers bring in the catch at the same time.”
The hosts are usually on the pier Memorial Day through Columbus Day, Friday through Monday. This year they are there Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays through September.