The following story ran in the Cape Cod Chronicle in 2016.
CHATHAM – When local shellfishermen wanted help setting up a meeting with officials from the state division of marine fisheries to discuss changes in regulations governing quahog size, they turned to an unlikely source: The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
Until fairly recently, few would have made a connection between the Alliance and shellfish. Last year, however, the West Chatham-based organization invested in a 13 percent ownership stake in Aquaculture Research Corporation in Dennis, helping save a company that provides dozens of communities with seed shellfish and becoming a player in the Cape’s commercial shellfishing industry.
The move is in many ways emblematic of how the Alliance has evolved and grown in the 25 years since it was founded as the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. No longer representative of one sector of the Cape’s commercial fishing industry, its mission has broadened to include advocating for a variety of gear types, helping fishermen establish good business practices, educating the community about the industry and the different species of fish found in local waters, and acquiring and leasing permits and catch quotas to ensure a future for fishermen and fishing communities.
That’s all a long way from what was on the minds of a dozen or so hook fishermen who started meeting in Chatham in 1991. Those were the early days of the marine fisheries councils set up by the National Marine Fisheries Service to advise about commercial fisheries policy, and it was becoming clear to hook fishermen that “the little guys were not represented at all,” said Peter Taylor, one of the founding members and a former president of the group. Big draggers and scallopers were working the system and “cut us right out of the equation.”
“We were just trying to defend our turf,” he said.
The group eventually began to focus on protecting the habitat the groundfish species they fished depended on, something they believed policy makers weren’t considering enough.
“That was a novel concept at the time,” said current Alliance Chief Executive Officer John Pappalardo. “It’s become operational fact now, but they were definitely ahead of the curve.”
The group tried to reach out to the federal officials making fisheries policy, “but we didn’t even get to first base,” said Fred Bennett, another of the group’s initial members.
“The learning curve was tremendous,” said Taylor. “We quickly learned how rigged the whole thing was.” They didn’t get very far with federal representatives, either. Both Taylor and Bennett told of having to scrape together cash for the opportunity to meet with one legislator, and then feeling they didn’t get anything for their money.
In the mid-1990s, with the help of local maritime attorney David Farrell, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association sued the federal government to force consideration of habitat in fisheries management planning. They lost that suit, said Bennett, but eventually joined with the Pew Center in another suit. Those actions, some of which are still pending, sparked a national discussion of the issue, and in 1996 federal law was modified to require protection of sensitive undersea habitat, said Pappalardo.
Navigating those lawsuits and figuring out how to finance them were “two huge early hurdles” for the organization, said Paul Parker, the group’s first executive director and currently director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust.
“It was a slow process of professionalizing the organization,” said Parker, who had a background in biology and natural resource management and was clamming and working on a hook boat out of Harwich at the time. The group, which by then had about 210 members, leased offices at Nickerson Corners in North Chatham and created the structure necessary to identify resources and make their voices heard on issues.
“Our early success was almost entirely because the local fleet and the community was able to rally around certain issues and work hard together to create change,” Parker said. Taylor credits Parker, who began as a volunteer, with doing the hard work of developing the organization, making contacts in government and finding the grant money they needed “to be players.”
“He’s the one who really did the best with that organization, headed it in the right direction,” Taylor said.
In the years since, the industry has changed dramatically. When the Hook Fishermen’s Association was founded, cod was still king in Cape waters. In the long struggle to hash out management closures, quotas and other details to try to keep New England’s commercial fishing industry alive, the Alliance (the name was changed in 2013 to more accurately reflect its representation of more than just the hook and fixed gear sectors) has maintained a voice, through its advocacy and Pappalardo’s membership on the New England Fisheries Management Council. The issues and processes remain as arcane as they were to that first group of hook fishermen in the early 1990s, and it’s the job of the Alliance’s dozen staffers to represent the interests of fishermen, so fishermen can focus on what they do best, fishing.
“We can’t put all these fires out and run successful fishing operations,” said Alliance Board President Nick Muto. The staff is plugged into the industry and is “watching our backs,” he said. Most recently the Alliance played a key role in convincing federal regulators to run a pilot program using digital cameras, rather than human monitors, on fishing boats to document catches. Muto is one of the fishermen participating in the program.
Muto in many ways represents where the Cape’s commercial fishing industry is today and may be heading in the future. He owns a dragger, fishes lobsters and owns a clam bake company. Cape fishermen have always diversified – even though they might not have called it that 30 or 40 years ago – and fished what was available, clamming when times were lean. Today that diversity is more formalized and the Alliance helps fishermen navigate the web of quotas, permits and regulations that govern the industry.
“The trust was instrumental in getting me on the water,” Muto said. “I wouldn’t be able to groundfish without the trust.”
In 2008, when it became clear that some of the larger fisheries businesses were buying up permits and quotas, the Alliance began building a permit bank and acquiring groundfish, scallop and surf clam quotas.
“We took a huge leap and said let’s buy some of this stuff,” said Pappalardo, who also began with the group as a volunteer around the same time as Parker. The permits and quotas are leased to local fishermen at affordable rates, allowing about 40 boats, representing 100 families, to catch 623,000 pounds of fish worth $2.9 million in 2012. The Cape Cod Fisheries Trust oversees the quota and permit leasing program and, with the Community Development Partnership, provides loans to fishermen as well as business planning and technical assistance.
“Fishermen now have business plans,” Muto said. “They’re empowering fishermen to be responsible for our own stuff. They’re not there to hold our hand.”
Alliance officials say this program helps maintain fishing communities by keeping the fish on local boats, and provides a way for young people to get into the industry.
“We’re optimistic that we’re building a future,” Parker said. “It’s not going to be the fishery we had in the 1950s, probably not even the 1980s,” with the changing ecosystem, climate change and more “dog(fish) and less cod.”
“One thing that’s always a hallmark of Cape Cod fishing is adaptability and diversification. Those are themes we see strengthening and putting our fishing communities in a strong position in years to come,” he said.
That gets back to ARC and the Alliance deciding to buy into the shellfish grower, to ensure that there’s a steady supply of seed quahog to supplement the natural shellfishery that many fin fishermen depend on to supplement their income. Pappalardo pointed out there are more than 300 commercial shellfishing permits issued in Chatham alone, and another 1,400 throughout the Cape. “That’s not an insignificant number year-round on the Cape,” he noted. Shellfishing is also a “low barrier” industry for young people to enter.
Reaching out beyond the industry, the Alliance runs a series of programs designed to bring the community and fishermen together and “de-mysterify” commercial fishing, including Meet the Fleet and Dish on Fish. The Fish for Families program helps get some 12,000 fresh seafood to 7,000 families through The Family Pantry of Cape Cod and other avenues. It’s annual Hooker’s Ball, which will be held on Aug. 6, is a summer highlight and the Alliance’s biggest annual fundraiser. Through its pier host program, retired fishermen like Bennett educate visitors about the local industry as they watch fish being offloaded from the observation deck of the Chatham Fish Pier.
“It’s kind of fun, actually,” Bennett said on a recent sun-filled late morning on the deck. Visitors ask all types of questions, from what species are being offloaded to how much fishermen make and where the seals come from.
Recent recognition of the Alliance, which is housed in an historic house on Route 28 in West Chatham, includes a tribute paid on the Senate floor by Senator Edward Markey and a recent excellence awarded given to the group by the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. But it hasn’t been immune to criticism, especially from the many fishermen who aren’t among the 100 or so Alliance members. While none were willing to go on the record for this story, they generally point to disillusion with high budgets and high salaries. According to the Alliance’s 2015 annual report, it had $2.3 million in revenue – 61 percent from grants – and expenses of $1.7 million. That’s a far cry from the $178,000 in revenue and $117,000 in expenses reported in 1999.
Pappalardo acknowledged the criticism. Like any organization that’s grown beyond its initial interests, the changes at the Alliance have ostracized some.
“We’re not a Chatham hook organization, but we haven’t been, in name, since 2010,” he said. “And I think that’s tough for some.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the fishermen who drive the organization, said Pappalardo.
“We’re only going to go as far as fishermen want us to go,” he said. “I’d like to see more fishermen take advantage of the opportunity to shape the process. Putting myself out of a job would be the ultimate success.”
“Honestly,” added Muto, “without fishermen, this place folds.”