By Doreen Leggett
Scott MacAllister, captain of F/V Carol Marie, ice coffee in hand, cap pulled low, told a capacity crowd at the Fishermen’s Alliance about getting ready for a day’s work.
“The morning routine is you sit there, have your coffee, and tape your fingers together,” said the 30-year-old captain.
The crew then puts on gloves to further protect their hands from spines on the skates they catch. MacAllister also picks up a tool to help harvest:
“A ballpeen hammer is the weapon of choice. You bop them real quick to settle them down; it is better they don’t know what is coming,” he said as the audience laughed along with him.
MacAllister was joined by fisherman Sean Connors, 30, who also gillnets for skates, and they had the crowd’s full attention at the June “Meet the Fleet.” Most, if not all, the crowd hadn’t been commercial fishing and too few had tried skate, so they were fascinated.
Meet the Fleets bring people together to meet Cape fishermen and sample their catch. On the menu that evening was curried skate wing, prepared by Chef Tyler Hadfield of The Barley Neck restaurant in Orleans. More than 80 attendees received Hadfield’s recipe.
Kate Masury of Eating with the Ecosystem – a non-profit in Rhode Island – was also a speaker and shared other skate recipes. Masury said because skate eat a lot of shellfish they taste sweet and briny, like a scallop.
“Skate is one of my favorites to cook at home,” said Masury. “As soon as it turns pure white you’re good.”
Eating with the Ecosystem has been around for 10 years and “promotes a place-based approach to sustaining New England’s wild seafood, through flourishing food webs, healthy habitats, and short, adaptive seafood supply chains.”
Masury said the place-based approach is built around five anchors – proximity, symmetry, adaptability, connectivity and community. Events like Meet the Fleet highlight the value of all those.
Take symmetry, which calls for local markets and diets to be more closely aligned with our ecosystems.
Fishermen in Massachusetts harvest more than six million pounds of skate, the vast majority in Chatham. Most of the catch, however, is eaten overseas and in pricey restaurants in New York City; it is difficult to find on the Cape. Masury said the fish is popular in many spots across the globe, just hasn’t caught on here.
In New York a plate can be $50, said MacAllister, and he gets about 50 cents a pound, though he has seen higher and lower prices.
The fishery is sustainable, he added, explaining fishermen haven’t reached the Total Allowable Catch mandated by regulators, based on population surveys, for several years running.
In the summertime fishing days are about eight hours, Connors told the crowd. Fishermen can catch their 6,000-pound limit quickly and close to Chatham.
In the winter, fishermen often combine their skate trips with a monkfish haul and those trips, much farther from home, can be as long as 36 hours.
One great thing is the entire skate is used. Skate wings are tasty fillets, while the “rack,” or middle of the skate, becomes bait for lobstermen. MacAllister suggested eating the cheeks too, as people do with cod.
“I have a confession, I like skate cheeks better than cod cheeks,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer, who was emceeing the event.
MacAllister got his start in the fishery on the Constance Sea, captained by Sean’s father, Greg, in high school. He crewed for Greg for about five years before he bought his own boat, named after his grandmother. Sean’s dad was one of the first fishermen to target skate and not be dependent on traditional fish such as cod and pollock.
Sean gave his father a call before the event to see when Sean first went to sea. Greg told his son he started fishing at about 7 years old.
“My responsibility was just smashing crabs out of the net,” Sean said.
Videos of skate and monk trips played behind the fishermen, created by portable “Go-Pros” mounted in unusual ways:
“This is footage from my forehead,” Sean said to laughter.
A long gillnet comes up on a hauler and skate are knocked with the hammer, winged and put on ice. Meanwhile, the “flaker” at the stern of the boat quickly untangles the net so it can be set again.
Questions from the audience were constant:
Where do they fish?
Depends, sometimes 40 miles off Nantucket, and wind farms may change that. McAllister got a text from a fisherman friend the other day joking, “Watch out, you are in the turbines.”
How big do skate get?
Average size is three and half feet, 15 pounds.
What does the net look like?
Three-quarters of a mile long, like a volleyball net underwater.
How much does a net cost?
To repair and re-hang a section of net is $300 and to get a new one about $600. There are 15 nets in each set, or string.
How many local fishermen are going for skate?
Close to a dozen, sometimes 20.
Why are the nets green and pink?
MacAllister said he preferred pink ones, because he heard that red can’t be seen underwater. Conners countered he heard people choose green because it matches the ocean.
One more valuable question: Where to buy skate?
Sanderson had multiple answers: Chatham Harvesters has a shop in Commerce Park and sells at many Farmers Markets; Red’s Best, which ships frozen skate pretty much anywhere and buys much of the skate landed in Chatham where it has a packing facility; Cataumet Fish in Bourne.
Masury said that attendees should ask at their favorite market. If that happens often enough, skate will be become a regular offering.
Thanks to NOAA Fisheries’ Saltonstall Kennedy Grant , we launched a Meet the Fleet Video Series, so if you missed an event, or loved it so much you want to relive it, you can catch them here: https://capecodfishermen.org/events/meet-the-fleet. NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Our grant is # NA22NMF4270126.