By Doreen Leggett
Five years ago, John Pappalardo and Nick Muto were sitting at the Fishermen’s Alliance office chatting about the 25th anniversary of the nonprofit when they were asked to look 25 years into the future:
What were their hopes for the fishing industry?
Pappalardo, CEO of the Fishermen’s Alliance, emphasized the Cape needed more hard numbers that showed the fishing economy’s importance. And the science that drove regulations had to come from fishermen.
Muto, chair of the board of directors at the time, said we need to grow the fleet, make sure those who are coming up now get to start their own businesses.
“I hope we have many more success stories, more feathers in our cap,” Muto said.
Fast forward five years, not 25, and there has been much progress meeting those goals.
The Fishermen’s Alliance partnered with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and UMass Urban Harbors Institute to publish a major study that lays out the economic value of individual ports on the Cape. Fishermen’s daily experience is showing up more in management decisions – checkmarks on John’s list. The Fishermen’s Alliance started a multi-faceted Fishermen Training Program to introduce more people to a career in the industry, and sold six scallop permits at affordable rates to help captains grow their businesses and the local economy – completing Nick’s list.
When fishermen started what was called the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in 1991, they knew they needed to be a strong, organized voice if they wanted to protect the fishing communities that define the Cape. That belief hasn’t changed.
“We see issues emerging at all times, from all sides,” Pappalardo said. “We figure out if they are going to be a problem, how likely they are to happen, where can we insert ourselves to maximum effect. And we ask ourselves if there are partners already involved so we can help share the burden. It’s all about working with fishermen to shape the future so the small-boat fleet succeeds.”
An early example: Fishermen wanted regulators to start caring about undersea habitats. When the young hook association was ignored, they filed a lawsuit.
“It’s always been about the habitat, from the get-go,” said Greg Walinski, a longtime fisherman who helped start the organization.
The association was started by hook-and-line fishermen, joined by Jim O’Connell who owned Old Harbor Fish Company and bought from the hook fleet. To be a successful hook fisherman there has to be a lot of fish in the sea – after all they are individually caught. It’s not like an entire school of fish being caught by a dragger’s net, or even swimming through gillnets.
Unfortunately, those important distinctions were not being considered in management decisions.
“Hook fishermen had virtually no rights at all,” Walinski said. “When it came to fishing it was like we didn’t exist. We were all a little frightened. We didn’t know what was coming down the pike.”
It became clear the group had to have a consistent presence at meetings and join regulatory groups making decisions. Since fishermen were on the water, staff was hired to step in.
“We needed to keep an eye on what was going on,” said Mark Leach, one of the original members of organization. “We didn’t want to sit in the audience and listen to our fate.”
That led John Pappalardo, who was fishing part-time and volunteering for the hook the rest of the time, to get on several fishery advisory committees. As the association grew, with Paul Parker becoming executive director in 1997, there was a push to get Pappalardo on the New England Fishery Management Council.
Parker remembers lots of bumper stickers, community support, and a busload of fishermen traveling to the State House to push for John’s appointment.
“There were drums, there were paper fish head puppets, it was a lot of fun,” remembered Parker. “He didn’t get on, but the next year he did.”
Walinski said it is “amazing” to think back to the beginning of the organization and realize how far it’s come.
That was 2002 and Pappalardo remains on the council, still trying to look to the future, pushing for ecosystem-based fisheries management. The non-profit has also grown to represent all the small-boat fisheries on the Cape.
“Policy successes aren’t a result of monitoring in real time, but being able to look at what is coming on the horizon,” said Mel Sanderson, Chief Operating Officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance. The approach becomes “seeing challenges and being positioned as a community to overcome those challenges.”
Looking ahead was one of the reasons why the Fishermen’s Alliance invested in the Cape’s only shellfish propagation facility, Aquacultural Research Corporation, in 2015. Shellfishing and fishing are inextricably linked.
“If a commercial fisherman can’t get offshore because of weather, they are likely inshore scratching for quahogs,” Sanderson said.
To further protect the shellfisheries, the Fishermen’s Alliance partnered with the state and others to help develop a blueprint for strengthening and protecting the industry through the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative.
This proactive thinking was an extension of an important earlier strategy: always looking for next big challenge and developing community-based solutions. Previous examples include buying permits from retiring Cape fishermen so they stayed local and pushing for the establishment of a buffer to protect herring, an essential forage fish and building block for many successful fisheries.
In each case, “support of the broader community was really vitally important,” said Parker.
One of the first community members to serve on the hook association’s board was Lou Maloof. He and his wife Carole moved to Chatham fulltime in 1994, and he remember wanting to get involved in the community and help the fishing industry. How they first found out about what was then the hook fishermen’s association is a small point of friendly disagreement between the couple, who have been married for 64 years.
They remember taking long walks with their golden retrievers which took them by the fish pier and it was there – either from some women mending nets or from someone in the harbormaster’s office – that they introduced themselves to the group.
“We decided we wanted to do a benefit for the fishermen,” said Lou.
“So that’s what we did,” said Carole.
Maloof is a talented actor, so he performed a Samuel Beckett play and a play written for him. Carole is an accomplished singer. They used their sunroom on Old Wharf Road, staging multiple performances, to entertain and host a buffet – including Lou’s Sayadeha, a Lebanese seafood dish.
“Everybody in town came,” said Carole. “It was great fun.”
Fishermen Peter, Paul, Mark and John – Carole nicknamed them the Apostles — would move the furniture to make space for the show.
“They were so wonderful,” she said.
Money raised helped fund the young Hook Association, which was fighting an ongoing battle to make sure regulators abided by the Sustainable Fishing Act and protected habitat.
“The association wanted to have just, reasonable fishing laws,” said Lou Maloof. “They worked on getting good science.”
The Maloofs also introduced association members to Bob and Anne O’Brien, as well as Actress Julie Harris, who were very helpful making connections for the young group with the community.
“At one of the balls we were dressed as pirates and one of the swords actually was used by Errol Flynn (who was friends with Bob O’Brien) in the movie ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’” Carole said with a laugh.
The first few Hookers Balls were organized by Connie Loomis, introduced to the Hook Association by chance. She was watching after her grandson at Eldredge Public Library when she noticed a stack of beautiful photographs of the fish pier that she thought should be on display.
Loomis started raising money to get them hung in the town hall annex and was told she should reach out to the hook association to sponsor. She talked to Pappalardo and he was happy to help. When she stopped in to say thank you she was tapped to help with the ball.
Loomis said her top priority was to get part-time residents to understand the tremendous value the fleet brought to the town’s economy and identity.
“We need to get to know them and they deserve respect,” Loomis added.
The ball was an instant hit and became an annual celebration.
“It was a huge, huge success,” Loomis said, “a great moment of appreciating the fishermen for who they were and what they did,”
The Fishermen’s Alliance also has prioritized educating people about the work and importance of the industry.
At Meet the Fleet, the community is introduced to fishermen who talk about their days on the water while local chefs cook up the catch. The Pier to Plate program has helped dozens of restaurants across the Cape introduce diners to dogfish and skate. Pier Hosts, older fishing captains, spend summer days at the fish pier talking to tens of thousands of people about the past, present and future of the fisheries. For the last four years, this free monthly e-magazine has been shared with close to 5,000 readers to connect them to the fishing community.
Gwen Holden Kelly, who has been involved with the organization for more than a decade, started with the Hookers Ball and then joined the finance committee in 2011 and eventually the board of directors. She believes the Fishermen’s Alliance has done a good job connecting with the wider community, telling the story of why local fisheries matter.
In many ways people outside the fishing industry see their support of the Fishermen’s Alliance as a way to support the place they love.
“I was one of those people who fell in love with the Cape. I want it to stay the way it is as much as possible. And fishermen are part of that,” Holden Kelly said.
“It’s an iconic industry. People want to preserve what makes the Cape special to them and that includes going down to the harbor and watching the fishermen come in.”