By Doreen Leggett
Fred Bennett remembers the moment well and although he doesn’t regret it, he does say he alienated some people. And he destroyed a flower pot.
It was the mid-1990s, in a conference center in Hyannis, at one of many state and federal hearings centered on reducing fishing effort.
Big cuts were on the table and hook fishermen like Bennett didn’t want to be lumped in with bigger dragger boats using so-called “rock hopper gear.” Hook fishermen were fishing in the same areas, said Bennett, and had seen the destructive impact this heavy equipment had the bottom, tearing up and removing vegetation, powerful enough to move boulders and destroy little protective oases.
So Bennett went to the meeting, laid a tarp on the ground and placed a flower pot on it. Then he commenced “fishing.”
“I dropped some hooks on the flower pot and nothing happened, actually I pulled one of the flowers out,” Bennett said on a foggy Chatham morning close to 30 years later.
Then he picked up an unwieldy roller taken off dragger gear he got in New Bedford. He said he must have had some help, although he doesn’t recall who.
“I could barely lift the damn thing,” he said.
He dropped it and the pot shattered.
“It got the point across,” he said.
The point was habitat protection. Bennett and others had been talking about how essential it is for close to a decade.
A few years before, in 1991, they had banded together and formed the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and one of their first meeting places was in a shed in Bennett’s yard.
“Habitat was the biggest thing,” Bennett said. “That is the whole crux of the situation.”
The late Bob Luce joined Bennett in starting the association and he also hammered home the importance of habitat. Luce’s memories, and Bennett’s, were captured on voice recordings done by the Fishermen’s Alliance close to 15 years ago.
Luce was talking to Abby Taylor, daughter of Peter Taylor, another captain who helped create the non-profit now celebrating its 30th year.
“Absolutely the government is right to regulate depleting fish stocks,” said Luce back then. But they weren’t taking into consideration the wisdom and knowledge of fishermen.
“They have a spawning closure off Chatham when the fish aren’t spawning,” Luce said in a tone of disbelief.
Luce said that hook fishermen learned very early that they would snag and lose their hooks trying to fish on rocky bottom. They stayed away for that reason, but also because it was perfect habitat for the young groundfish, such as cod, that they relied upon.
“If codfish has a big year class they have to have some kind of cover to hide in. For years people didn’t understand that,” he said. “People thought (the ocean bottom) was like the beach you went swimming on. It isn’t.”
The hook association was formed because no matter how often small boat fishermen said habitat was important, and the style of fishing mattered, they were ignored.
“I worked at it for many years with other fishermen. And that’s why we formed this group so we could stay fishing,” Bennett said in a recording around 2006.
The hook fishermen’s association soon grew to more than 200 members, hired its first executive director, Sherrill Smith, and elected its first president, Mark Leach. Then things got really serious.
“We decided we would have to hire a lawyer because they were going to put us right out of business,” Luce said in the recording.
A lawsuit was filed by local attorney David Farrell, who worked many hours pro bono, to change the way the federal government managed fisheries. The overriding objective was to force federal regulators to consider habitat in management planning.
Although the hook fishermen were eventually successful in their suit, many felt that managers fell short.
“They never protected the hard bottom,” Bennett said in the old recording, “much as we harped on them.”
The non-profit continued that fight, and joined others. Starting in 1996, federal law was changed to require protection of undersea habitat and more protections have been added over the years.
But things got so bad that neither Bennett nor Luce wanted their sons to fish.
“I don’t see how a young person could get in the business,” Bennett said in the recording. “First of all you have to learn it and the cost is so horrendous now.”
Today Luce’s son is still a fisherman and the Fishermen’s Alliance has worked to make habitat a priority and to lower some of the barriers of entry.
Bennett, 84, still fishes a bit himself, and feels better than he did about the future. He is very proud of his grandsons who have gone into the industry. Still he remembers the early days of the Fishermen’s Alliance as tough.
“A lot of it is bad memories you want to erase,” he said, before adding with a smile, “This organization came out to be good.”
(This one of a series of stories we will be doing throughout the year as we talk to some of the fishermen and supporters who helped build what is now the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.) This story was updated.