From starfish to scup, a fisherman's journey
By Doreen Leggett
On a warm, breezy fall day, Ken Baughman was within sight of Woods Hole’s stone pier fishing for tautog in a boat of his own making.
With his dog Lucy in the bow, he cast into one of his favorite spots, came up empty handed, but still was all smiles.
“I love rod and reel fishing,” he said. “People ask, ‘What would you do if you had a million dollars?’ I would go out and go fishing.”
Baughman doesn’t have that kind of money, so he is attempting to break into commercial fishing in a different way.
Baughman asked some fishermen how they got into the business and the answers varied widely. Some have family connections, others made money on big boats in Alaska and came home, still others started as a crew and the captain retired early, and a few “beat the hell” out of themselves fishing for bluefish and finally saved enough to buy a groundfish permit. There was no clear path, nothing he could replicate.
“It’s a lot of individual circumstances,” all unique stories, he said.
Baughman does not consider himself a commercial fisherman quite yet. But even getting this far, his story would be virtually impossible to replicate as well.
Baughman, 43, grew up in Cambridge near Harvard, played youth soccer with Joe Kennedy III, went to private school in Groton. His parents had bought a place in Quissett, Falmouth, when he was young so the water factored big in his memories.
Baughman fished around Falmouth since he was kid, remembers zipping around in skiffs with friends throwing potato chips in the water so fancy, expensive boats would follow the birds (usually a telltale for fish) that chased the salty snack. Then the small crafts would use the distraction to catch bonita.
Science as well as fishing was a part of his everyday world. His dad is a neurobiologist and Baughman has connections to many of the institutions in Woods Hole: He caught mackerel for NOAA’s Woods Hole aquarium before he turned 10, did Sea Education Association in high school, took summer courses at the Marine Biological Lab.
He went to college at Washington University, graduate school at Yale, post doc at Harvard. During his time at Harvard he went to university in Japan and helped map the genome of starfish. Baughman’s mom is Japanese, he says he is like her in his wide range of interests; she owned a restaurant, was a teacher, and was in real estate to name a few professions.
He also spent some time crewing on a charter boat out of Woods Hole and knows the history of the place. He can talk about the old guano plant, the white shark Gretel that got trapped by Naushon Island in 2004, the leper colony on Penikese Island and other tales.
“The Elizabeth Islands have some of the best striper fishing in the world,” he said, adding that several U.S. presidents used to vacation on Cuttyhunk so they could fish.
After starting and running his own software company for five years, his degree in economics and even mapping the genome has proven instructive as he moved into the fishing world.
He thought about taking charters but opted against it, feeling the people he took fishing to special spots he loves wouldn’t always share a respect for the resource.
But Baughman in no way wanted to give up fishing. In March, right before the pandemic changed the world, he took a course offered by the Fishermen’s Alliance. Forty hours of training covered everything from gear types to navigation and safety.
George Maynard, research director at the Fishermen’s Alliance, helped teach the course – the first of its kind on the Cape. He said Baughman was one graduate who himself may come back to teach one day.
“A living in this profession requires a unique set of skills, a strong work ethic, and a willingness to try new things. We believe there are plenty of people out there who are interested in working a challenging job that rewards hard work, but they might not realize that fishing is a viable option or know where to get started,” Maynard said.
Baughman was one of those people who wanted more insight before breaking into the industry.
Baughman thought the safety training, including getting into a survival suit and life raft quickly, was especially valuable. Having Fishermen’s Alliance staff answer permitting and regulation questions was a boon considering the complexity of the current system.
Engine issues were problematic for Baughman this spring, he said; he lost a month to a faulty motor.
That and other concerns prompted him to develop a business plan. He ran numbers and from his way of seeing it the way he can get started, at least on the Cape, is to net $50,000.
To do that initially, one needs to get on the water safely but relatively cheaply.
“In New England having a boat is a privilege because it is such a limited season. That is what kills you,” he said.
Baughman said that if you can find a used motor that is trustworthy, you can get on the water safely for $10,000. That’s what he did.
He can repair motors, a huge advantage. He isn’t above printing out manuals, adding that the meticulous focus required in mapping starfish genes was helpful.
He put his handmade Tolman skiff on the water this summer.
“People ask why I spend so much time with plywood and motors and the answer is this: To spend more time on the bay,” he said.
He also has been building boats, or buying old boats, rehabbing and selling four.
“I am all for selling boats in the winter,” he said.
Maynard, who has been out in a Baughman-made boat, said they are beautifully made and will help make ends meet when the young fisherman can’t be on the water.
“While many small-scale fishermen diversify to account for seasonal changes, Ken has taken an interesting approach using his skills building and refurbishing boats to provide additional income when fishing slows down,” Maynard said.
The path Baughman chose was no surprise to his close friends. Andrew Stephen, now a trauma surgeon in Rhode Island, is one.
Stephen remembers when they were around 13, they got to talking about an old motor in the attic from an old skiff in the yard.
“He was, like, I think I can get that running and I was, like, no way,” Stephen said. Sure enough, Baughman had it running and they used it, and the skiff, to fish for the next five years or so.
“No one else had the energy, enthusiasm or knowledge to get it done,” he said.
But this summer was the first time Baughman tried to make a living commercial fishing. Baughman ended up going for scup mostly, although next year he will try and expand to bluefish, perhaps black sea bass. There are people who make money selling scup, he said – but he was not one of them.
“I only sold 70 pounds, people may say maybe it’s time to give it up,” said Baughman.
He feels quite the opposite.
“I’m excited for next year,” he said.
Baughman intends to stick with rod and reel. Although most people consider rod and reel a stepping stone he thinks the fisheries would benefit if more people did it.
William “Nat” Chalkley agrees with Baughman on that point. He said rod and reel is a traditional fishery that fills a niche; would be tough to buy bluefish and striper without it.
Baughman crewed a time or two for Chalkley several years ago and the two are still friends.
Chalkley isn't shy about warning Baughman that the route he has chosen isn't easy.
“There is a reason I don’t do it full time anymore. It is really hard to make it work as a rod and reel guy …unless you have been doing it for a long time and you have a whole bank of knowledge and all the permits,” he said, adding that even then “you are a builder or whatever in the winter time.”
Most of the fisheries are closed now so you need to buy a permit to get in, some of those run $25,000 or so and on top of a boat and gear that’s $50,000 before you even get started.
He started 18 years ago so the barriers to entry were not as steep, and he loved it.
“It is really exciting, it is a lot of fun,” Chalkley said.
But, he added, he doesn’t fish a quarter of what he used to. Rod and reel is way too much work for way too little money. He thinks a program to help offset the costs of getting started would help people like Baughman, but he is fighting an uphill battle.
“It would be a shame to lose the rod and reel fishery, but like I said it’s hard to make a living. You have to have a lot of drive to actually make it work,” Chalkley said. “None of the serious fishermen I know are rod and reelers. They might do it in addition to lobstering.”
Baughman does have the right attitude, he added, and he is willing to go out there and lose money day after day to get the background he needs so Chalkley has wished him luck.
“He is good at making things work,” he said. “He is good at improvising, maybe not always the correct way, but he makes it work and he gets it done.”
For his part, Baughman has listened to Chalkley and he has a goal: “I want to prove Nat wrong,” he said with a laugh.
So, Baughman plans to build another Tolman skiff for next year, a sturdy boat that can carry a lot of weight, light and economical.
“I’ll keep building this boat, handing them out, and people will catch on,” Baughman said. “That’s one way I can contribute to the fishery.”