Over the Bar

Jun 27, 2018 | Over the Bar

The telltales tell an exciting story

For years now, there has been a narrative about our fisheries that could be summed up as follows:

Woe is us.

Yes, times have been tough, for sure. But I’m tired of that stale old narrative. And much more important than how I feel about it, I don’t believe it. The evidence I see says that a sea change is coming, in fact has started. This rising tide won’t lift all boats but it will lift a lot of them, and included on those decks will be the next generation of independent Cape Cod fishermen.

Why do I say this? Here’s why, starting with facts and figures, backed up with anecdotes and personal observations.

In 2017, fishermen landed almost 62 million pounds of fish on Cape Cod, which translates into almost $74 million of value to the boats alone. That doesn’t count fish landed by Cape Cod fishermen at other ports like New Bedford and it doesn’t take into account how that $74 million of fish ripples and multiplies in value as it moves into wholesale, retail, and restaurant businesses. There were 1867 commercial fishermen who landed that catch, and they made almost 58,000 trips to sea last year.

The people who generate that kind of economic activity are not some stereotyped old salts ambling around the docks tugging on beards and telling yarns while they lug totes. Neither are they corporate types who send their profits to shareholders or executives via Wall Street. Fishermen by and large are smart, savvy, hardworking entrepreneurs with major business investments, dealing with cash flow as much as tidal flow. They might still make business plans on the back of a napkin but they also use spreadsheets, computer projections, and can tell you to the penny what the prices have been and what that means to their margins.

Just this past winter, we’ve seen more than a handful of fishermen spend hundreds of thousands of dollars investing in new boats and big makeovers of existing boats, buying new fishing permits and more quota. These are no gambling fools, believe me. They have assessed where we are, what they can do, and they are all in. By the way, when they walk into banks and credit unions, show their plans and net worth, they get financing.

Part of the reason for this hard-won optimism is growing hope that scientists and government officials who manage the fishery see that we need to improve our stock assessments, and we need to respect and support honest, accountable fishermen. Both goals would seem obvious and not so difficult to accomplish, but that’s not the case. I see a new generation of fishery managers who “get it,” who realize that fishermen and their wisdom must be part of the process, who know that people like Carlos Raphael should not be in the business, who want to level the playing field for the benefit of those who fish by the rules, who know that our stocks are coming back, who also know we can’t allow destructive tactics like mid-water trawls (or cheating) wipe out the fertile mix of small fish that bring bigger fish to our shores.

I see Harwich and Chatham funding major harbor improvements and expansions, grappling with how commercial fishermen and recreational boaters share space and access. From Sandwich, Falmouth and Hyannis to Sesuit and Orleans up to Provincetown, I see ports where fishermen offload day and night, tourists and others admiring their work. I see respect for the effort and tradition.

And in close synergy with the “grow local, eat local” movement, I see a growing understanding that the wild fish our fleet brings home are a big cut above what passes for fish elsewhere. The harvest, like local produce, is worth a little more because it is so much more healthy and fresh, and that little bit more helps create the margin that keeps our independent fishermen afloat.

So it’s not a matter of me seeing my glass as half full. My glass is filling up, nowhere near the brim but filling. Over the past decade there have been times when I thought I saw the bottom of that glass, and maybe we all did. Now I look up, see the telltales, and here’s what they show:



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