Q&A with Dan McKiernan

Jun 24, 2020 | Plumbing the Depths

Dan McKiernan, left, with his brother Jim in 1990. Courtesy photo.

Doreen Leggett and Seth Rolbein 

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A lot of water passes under a personal bridge in 34 years, which is how long Dan McKiernan has been working in and around the Massachusetts fishing industry. His recent appointment as director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries is a culmination of that career journey – which also means the tens of thousands of hours he has spent commuting from Sandwich to Boston over the years will continue, at least when some semblance of normalcy returns and the pandemic fades.

We thought it would be important to sit down with the new director – virtually – and offer our community an opportunity to get to know him better, learn where he’s come from and how he sees a most challenging moment going forward. The questions and answers that follow were edited down from the original transcript, but hew closely to verbatim answers. We could have gone on a lot longer, there is plenty more to discuss. And so perhaps this will be one of several such conversations as the months pass, we’ll see.

Did you grow up on the water? Did you grow up in a fishing family?

No, I grew up in a mill town, Lawrence, Massachusetts.  My dad worked for the electric company and at age 7 we moved from Lawrence to Lowell, then from Lowell to Shrewsbury. That’s where I probably did most of my fishing, all freshwater, a fair amount of trout fishing. This was at a time before a lot of development, there was actually a stream in my neighborhood stocked with trout.

And my parents took us up to Biddeford Pool, Maine every summer for two weeks. I was one of eight kids so my mother was thrilled when I would just do something that was safe and out of sight and she wouldn’t have to worry about me. I can remember the first striped bass I caught in 1973, in hindsight it looked like a three-year-old, of the 1970 year class. The fishing wasn’t that great, or maybe I wasn’t that good of a fisherman, but every year I would catch one and as I look back at those pictures you can kind of see the 1970 year class aging and getting bigger as I aged and got bigger.

How did you find your way into DMF?

I was an undergraduate at what was then Southeastern Mass University, now UMASS Dartmouth, and got a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. I also worked one year at the cranberry experiment station in East Wareham as an assistant to the entomologist and that was really interesting. I think that had a lot of impact on me because that was all applied research and you work really hand-in-glove with the industry. Applied research and increased food production always intrigued me.

Then I headed to Auburn University in Alabama for two years of graduate school. But I longed to drive my Volkswagen bus home. And so I came back in 1985 and applied for a seasonal position as a lobster sea sampler. After one year of doing that I was hired as an assistant biologist, so I moved from the North Shore to the South Shore. After a few years collecting reams and reams of data that I didn’t always feel were going to be analyzed as much as they should be or have as much impact as I wanted, I decided to get into the fisheries management gig. An assistant to David Pierce (who would later become the director of DMF prior to McKiernan’s appointment) opened up in 1988. It wasn’t a promotion, it was a lateral transfer — and added three and half hours to my workday, going to Boston to work with Phil Coates and David Pierce.

The timing of your appointment is remarkable, right away facing the generational challenge of this pandemic. How are you responding?

At the agency level we are able to maintain a lot of productivity. Our shellfish program remains active in the field as does our fiscal and permitting staff. We have a lot of people who have worked for us for a long time, very little turn over, and for them it’s really a vocation and so the productivity is still really strong. Right now we are working on the $28 million fiscal relief package sent from the federal government, and how to distribute that.

What do you see as the major challenge for the fleet this unique summer?

Oh boy, obviously the loss of market, the reduction of restaurant trade. We are predicting reduced ex-vessel prices for just about every fleet, some worse than others. And it’s a big, big problem because a lot of the business models and a lot of the regulations have an implied revenue associated, but when those ex-vessel prices are reduced a lot of these fishery businesses may not be profitable.

The lobster fishery is facing some real reductions. We heard that tuna buyers may not take any fish until August and that is unprecedented. We know that other fish prices are reduced. So I think one of the challenges for us is to do what we can to ramp up local consumption and I don’t think that needs a whole lot of coaching by us. We are already hearing a buzz in communities as people are learning about fishermen selling off the boat. People are buying direct and while that is not a panacea it does reflect renewed energy we are seeing on the part of consumers supporting local fishermen.

That would be a silver lining from our perspective, do you think the interest will continue?

We have a seafood marketing program, but it has been really challenging to get people to buy local when there is so much fish available from elsewhere. Now the buy local movement is really catching on.   I’m hoping there will be a continued vibe on the part of the public to look for locally caught product and I hope it will translate into the town fathers, or selectboards, being more sympathetic to commercial fishermen in terms of the allocation of resources. Maybe even at the state level, an effort to preserve working waterfronts to make sure commercial fishermen aren’t squeezed out, slips and moorings aren’t sold to the highest bidder, non-fishing interests. I think this is a wake-up call that our commercial fishing fleets are important.

How does the Cape’s fishing fleet differ from the rest of the state? 

Massachusetts has some major ports, such as Gloucester, Boston, New Bedford, with industrial-scale boats, even fleets where multiple boats may be owned by a single individual. That is very rare on the Cape. The Cape ports tend to be owner operated, and a lot of regulations promote that, for instance the lobster fishery for state waters has an owner-operator rule, the permit holder has to be on the boat. We have done that for other pot fisheries as well, and as a result you have these independent, one-boat one-permit businesses. Those businesses can jump from species to species, but sometimes they don’t have the resiliency of deeper pockets created by multiple boats.

So the Cape tends to have this small-boat fishery operated by people who live in the community or the next town — depending on how high the real estate is.

How does management differ between shellfish and finfish?

In the shellfish world municipalities have primary control over management while the state has some broad rules, such as minimum size. So we have a lot of variability, town-to-town preferences is something you have to respect. At the state level we are in the midst of a thing called the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative which has been a little controversial, kind of a grassroots effort by some stakeholders to bring forward analyses and questions and hope for a strategic plan to enhance shellfish management and bring about any needed changes. Going forward there are a lot of issues facing the shellfish fishery, things like climate change. We want to work with the communities to try and figure out what are the overarching issues.

One of the things is the issue of aquaculture grants and transfers. That got a lot of people kind of uptight when they saw some legislation about it and that is an issue we hope to work with the legislature on and have a full and open debate. Another is that some municipalities are planting oysters as a remedial measure for nitrogen reduction and the growers are appropriately anxious about whether those shellfish could be put on the market and compete with farm-raised oysters. So those are ongoing issues we want to work with the legislature on.

With the pandemic we are all scrambling to help the industry where we can, but for the moment there isn’t much in the way of new initiatives.

What are some of your goals, which must have changed some given the situation?

We are hoping to do more seafood promotion. I would love to challenge everyone in eastern Massachusetts to double their seafood intake to help the waterfront. Also, lawsuits involving right whales and fishing gear are taking up a lot of time. And there is always a need for better data and better assessments. The pandemic is affecting that. For example, our inshore trawl survey, we have been doing that for 42 years and that didn’t sail last month. So we have a missing data point.

You sit at an interesting nexus. In one way your responsibility is to support the fishing community, but you also represent the public at large and resource protection. Is there a tension there?

Yes, that is absolutely true. When we talk about sustainability we are talking about levels of exploitation of a natural resource. The key is to create rules that allow stocks to recover from whatever fishing happens annually. All these stocks rise and fall depending on different environmental factors and that’s where the challenge comes, to try and manage to prevent stocks from going to critically low levels, while at the same time keep people employed and people fed.

It is an amazing and challenging nexus of those two mandates, but that’s what we do. It takes a fair amount of credibility and trust that I hope I have earned over 34 years in the industry.


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