By Doreen Leggett
Times were uncertain, paychecks were small, cod were scarce, there was talk of fishing moratoriums and small boats being pushed out of the fisheries. Then meeting notices started appearing around the docks, talking about organizing a group of hook and line fishermen.
“These moratoriums were going to be based on catch history and these big decisions by the councils were making people antsy, there were red flags,” said Mark Simonitsch, who had some signs at what was then his dock on Stage Harbor. “And people were seeing less cod fish.”
Fishermen had already seen a few years of papers filled with news like this, from the New York Times, headlined “Plenty of Fish in the Sea? Not Anymore.”
The depletion of the groundfish stock (cod, haddock and flounder) has already taken its toll on the economy. The reduction in annual landings of groundfish by 137 million pounds has cost New England $350 million and 14,000 jobs,” the article read. “The Conservation Law Foundation and Massachusetts Audubon Society sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Commerce, which oversee the council, for failing to meet their charge under the Magnuson Act. But the conservation groups agreed to settle the suit if the council would develop a plan by Sept. 1, 1992, that would reduce the number of fish harvested by 50 percent.
So in 1991, a loose-knit group of hook and line fishermen began meeting in Fred Bennett’s shed, upstairs in Jim O’Connell’s office at Old Harbor Fish Company, in the basement of Harwich Town Hall, when Mark Leach’s brother, the harbormaster, could get them a room.
Initially the goal was simple. “I think it was just for survival purposes. We felt we needed to do something for the small, small boats,” said Tom Luce, who joined the group with his father, Bob. “We just felt like we’d be squashed first.”
Soon though, as the months went by, a platform was established – habitat protection was essential, overfishing needed to be stopped, and all fisheries were not created equal – the type of gear used, and the amount of fish you caught, mattered.
In December of 1991, Sherrill Smith of Orleans (who had experience as a fisherman, minister, and harbormaster) was named executive director. He typed a letter and sent it to the New England Fishery Management Council letting them know about the group and asking to be informed of meetings.
“The organizational meeting included 40 owners of tub trawlers and jig boats. It is expected that this number will grow in the weeks ahead,” he wrote. Leach named those who were there in the beginning, some of who we’ve lost: Bob Luce, Tom Traina, Dom Bramley, Albert Nardini and Sherrill Smith. Others, including Bruce Kaminiski and Peter Taylor are still connected to the fisheries.
The numbers did grow, Smith helped represent the fishermen at various meetings, arguing hook fishing made a “negligible” impact on the resource and should not be regulated the way larger draggers were. He, and members, also talked about how protecting small, owner-operated businesses had huge economic and sociological importance for “rural,” coastal communities.
O’Connell was the only founding member of the organization that wasn’t a hook fisherman, but he was intimately connected to the fleet. O’Connell believed the fish that were brought in on hook boats were of much higher quality than those landed by gillnetters and draggers. He thought they should get a better price and moved his business, which had been at the fish pier for 50 years, to a spot on Route 29 to work solely with the hook fishermen. (The lease at the town-owned fish pier required the fish companies to buy from all boats.)
“Back then the hook fishermen were desperately in need of getting a premium price for their fish. We managed to do that at Old Harbor,” O’Connell said.
What O’Connell also did was introduce the hook fishermen, and their cause, to restaurants up and down the Cape. Many of those restaurants became members as well.
“We got donations from a whole bunch of people to ensure the supply of that quality of fish,” O’Connell said, adding, “the whole idea of a dredge the size of my house dragged across the ocean bottom was wrong.”
Soon they began raising money, dues was a $100.
“We had the big meeting at the Chatham High School, which is when I became president. Mark Simonitsch said I nominate Mark Leach,” Leach said with a shrug. “What are you going to do?”
Leach was president from 1991 to 2000 when he said he had had it. Teddy Ligenza stepped in as president at that point.
Sherrill Smith helped the small-boat fleet weather two regulatory storms by fighting for exemptions from most of the fishing moratoriums. Still, the lawsuits filed by conservation groups against the federal government continued on. Leach, the president of the non-profit at the time, had met Lori Steele, then Lori Lefevre when she interviewed him as part of her thesis on N.E. groundfish as a graduate student at Duke.
When she stopped by to say thank you, he was repairing lobster traps and offered her a job as the executive director as Smith had stepped away. They needed someone to help raise money for their lawsuit against the federal government. The hook fishermen had hired Attorney David Farrell in 1994 and argued that managers were not doing enough to protect habitat and that gear, such as hooks, was more sustainable because it was more selective – it had little bycatch (unintended catch.)
“Dave Farrell is the reason there is a (Fishermen’s Alliance) office right now,” Leach said.
Leach said they had been working on fundraising, auctioning off a truck at Chatham Ford comes to mind – he thinks longtime fisherman Charlie Melbye won it.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “It was the talk of the town.”
As Steele remembers it, the hook association had just become a 501C3 when she arrived. She said the growing group of fishermen realized their industry was in danger and that non-governmental organizations were having an easier time fundraising and advocating for their policy positions.
“The NGOs were coming after the industry and they were like let’s become an NGO too,” Steele said.
Her first meeting with the hook association was all about next steps and strategic planning and, as it happened, her close friend from Duke, who had been in her coastal fisheries classes, has graduated and come to town. Paul Parker was living in his grandmother’s house and was clamming until he found a job.
So she enlisted him right away, and, that same summer in1997, Parker met John Pappalardo at a party and he joined the team as well.
The organization’s lawsuit was stayed, but helped push the government to start to develop regulations to protect the habitat. No one knew what those regulations would be, or how they would affect the fleet so the association needed funding to continue in the courts and with advocacy.
Steele and others combed through big books that listed foundations across the country ( the world wide web wasn’t a thing yet) and sent letters telling them about the organization and what it wanted to accomplish.
“We built the organization around the core of the legal challenge,” said Parker. “Those progressive ideas were extremely important.”
At her first meeting Steele said they came up with a slogan, which she still remembers: “protecting a tradition, the economy and the environment.”
Steele said she was offered a full-time job at the New England Fishery Management Council about six months later, which she had wanted, and took.
She stayed at the council for 18 years and watched as Parker and Pappalardo and fishermen she knew came to meetings, and then Pappalardo becoming a member and then chairing the council.
“It’s been really cool to watch. I was really happy to be part of that organization when it took off,” Steele said.
The mission hasn’t changed much through the years, although it has grown a little broader.
“The fishermen truly believed you have to protect the habitat so fish have somewhere to hide and grow up and fishermen have something to catch,” Pappalardo said.
Simonitsch explained it this way.
“The codfish were in the sea and not at the Council meeting until the 1990s with the presence of a very, very few groups like the Hook Association … until then the codfish had no voice at the Council meetings,” said Simonitsch.
The fishermen were ultimately successful in their suit. Working with Farrell and the Ocean Law Project, they sued the government in 1999 for not protecting essential fish habitat, as required under the Sustainable Fisheries Act. They won in 2000.
Oral histories of some of the early members of the group talk about the frustration they had with regulators not taking the longview or making the difficult decisions to protect the fish.
From the beginning the organization realized that the fisheries helped define the Cape and if they weren’t sustainable the community would be irrevocably changed.
“These are the ingredients for a fishing community – you need access to the resources off your coast, you need waterfront infrastructure to support the commerce, you need shoreside businesses and support services and you need access to a marketplace,” said Pappalardo. “We are also an essential part of the community. We monitor all of those things day to day and we are involved in the regulatory and political environment that has a lot of impact on those core elements. We are the glue that binds of all those things together on behalf of our industry members.”
One of the reasons for the success, Parker said, was establishing an office, first in Post Office Square in North Chatham. Later, in 2010, the association, working with the town’s Community Preservation Committee and David ad Gail Oppenheim, restored the historic Captain Nathan Harding House and moving there.
“We had a physical place where people convened and developed strong platforms that we advocated for,” Parker said.
Mark Simonitsch remembers that as well.
“I remember the hook as a place where people could talk – Paul used to say you can bitch, but only if you have a recommendation on how to fix it,” Simonitsch said. “I thought that was important, because frankly you felt empowered.”
He added that the hook, now the Fishermen’s Alliance, did well by trying to work within the process to effect change. He spoke of another group that tried to blow up the process from the outside and didn’t fare as well.
Pappalardo agrees with that.
“One of the things that sort of separates us from anyone else is our practice of studying an issue long before it becomes an emergency and being willing to discuss it with everyone and anyone,” he said. “We didn’t have a voice, so set out to gain a voice of credibility and reason. We don’t throw a lot of rocks, we roll up our sleeves.”
Parker said the organization grew quickly in the first 10 years, starting with all volunteers and growing to include 10 full-time staff and several interns.
After a lot of soul searching and arguments the hook association became the Fishermen’s Alliance in 2013. The thought was that protecting coastal communities needed to focus on small boats and small businesses, not gear type.
Leach, who was a hook fisherman, and then a lobsterman, said it was the right thing to do.
“I’m happy it transitioned,” Leach said.
He said oftentimes one fisherman is involved in several different fisheries, depending on the time of year, the market or the stock – all the same guy, Leach said.
“It’s important we work as a team,” he added.
“No one is making it on one species,” Pappalardo said.
What many fishermen had noticed was that throughout the 2000s, many, including the media had written the obit on the fishing industry.
Even scientific journals were saying that at this rate all commercial fisheries would be gone by 2050 and we would be eating farmed fish.
Although those in the Fishermen’s Alliance didn’t think the fisheries would be gone, there was concern that fishing communities would be because of consolidation.
To prevent that the hook association raised several million dollars to buy the permits, and fishing quota, of retiring Cape fishermen – which were becoming more expensive than taxi medallions. The intent was to keep the quota, and fishing businesses, on Cape.
“We hold them in trust and then we lease them back to commercial fishermen,” Pappalardo said, adding that, right now the organization has quotas for fish that local boats aren’t catching.
The non-profit is holding on to them knowing that the one constant in the fisheries is change.
As more and more fishermen are impacted by climate change and as ecosystem based fisheries management – as opposed to species by species – gains strength, focus on the future will be invaluable.
Many see the Fishermen’s Alliance as essential too.
“It’s a necessity. Every fishing community up and down the coast needs an advocate,” Luce said.
“It’s always good to have an organization that is trying to protect your rights and make sure the laws are administered fairly,” Leach agreed.
“We have had pretty good success I would say.”