Direct Sale of Fish Eyed at Menemsha
Chilmark Selectmen Explore Options on Waterfront
By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
The Chilmark selectmen are exploring ways to enable fishermen to sell their catch directly at the Menemsha dock, part of their ongoing search for ways to support the fishing fleet and boost the village economy in general.
One idea is to attract another market to town, in particular one that would sell fresh fish caught by the Menemsha fleet, with the rest shipped to the mainland by truck, the old-fashioned way.
The three commercial seafood businesses currently on the waterfront - including Menemsha Fish Market and Larsen's Fish Market - rarely purchase the fish off the local boats, according to the selectmen.
"I think there are plenty of people in town who are convinced that commercial fishing will be a part of our future. It is one of our strong priorities. The open question is what kind of support local government can give to the fishermen," selectman Warren Doty said this week.
"This is an opportunity to create jobs. We want diversity in our town and work available. This shouldn't just be a resort community," said selectman J.B. Riggs Parker.
In the last two years a buy boat has operated from the town dock, transporting thousands of pounds of fluke to New Bedford each day. The Menemsha markets themselves, however, derive their income mostly by selling fish that comes in from New Bedford.
"I am told that the fishermen want reliability and stability, being able to know there is someone who will buy their fish. We don't know if there will be a buy boat this summer. There needs to be confidence that the fish will be bought at a fair price and get to market on time," Mr. Parker said this week.
"I am no fish expert, but I just believe that when the three selectmen in town agree we should do something to save this aspect of our town, we need to try," he said.
Mr. Parker said he has watched other beautiful fishing ports along the eastern seaboard change. With pressure from summer boaters, a lot of dock space is changing hands. "Once it is gone, it is gone forever," he said.
The town already charges low rent to the three businesses that sit on town-owned property on the waterfront, and there is room for a fourth, also on town-owned land.
Last week, with an eye toward attracting a new wholesale seafood processor to town, the Chilmark selectmen held an informational meeting with Kevin Conroy, a Connecticut seafood merchant and summer resident. As a next step, Mr. Doty said he sees the board holding a forum with the current waterfront lease holders to talk about what can be done. Any solution will take time and cooperation between all involved, he said.
This week, some of the market owners and fishermen spoke about the hurdles in buying and selling locally caught fish. For the markets, one of the problems is permitting; state permits are needed to purchase fish directly from fishermen.
Stanley Larsen - who runs Menemsha Fish Market - said he plans to get his store in compliance so he can get the permits to buy from the fishermen; currently his fish is delivered by truck. "The first year I bought the business, I was processing and distributing fish and doing the retail. Now I am going to cut back and focus more on the processing."
"It is a lot of work, a lot of record keeping," Mr. Larsen said. "My main initiative is to help local fishermen here. There is a lot of product out there."
The sentiment was echoed by Louis Larsen, who owns the Vineyard Haven fish market The Net Result. He has no retail outlet in Menemsha, but is the third business on the waterfront, maintaining a building on the dock for the storage of lobsters. Mr. Larsen said he rarely buys fish from the boats because of the paperwork.
"Fishermen think their product is worth too much of the share, for the amount of paperwork we have to do. The expenses in record keeping are astronomically more. They want to make 50 per cent or better on the retail price," he said, adding:
"I could probably ship the fish to the mainland, but I am not willing to be the buyer and the seller. For all the certification that is required. I would rather be a trucker than a fish buyer."
The market in New Bedford determines the whole sale price for the region. Mr. Larsen is concerned that if he buys fish from a boat on Monday and gets the fish to New Bedford on Tuesday, and the price has fallen; he's the loser.
"If it costs me 35 cents to deliver a pound of product, I want to have my profit in there somewhere. The volume has to be worth it," Mr. Larsen said.
Mr. Conroy - who initially was asked to get involved by Chilmark harbor master Dennis Jason - said he thinks the concerns about price stability can be addressed. Mr. Conroy runs Rowayton Seafood Restaurant in Norwalk, a business he began 28 years ago.
"The simple fact is there has to be some way to add value to some of the fish that is landed in Menemsha that might give a better higher price to the fishermen," he said. "If the market next day offers a lower price, what do you do? By moving the fish farther south and trying to get to more southern markets there might bring a better price; that is one of our ideas.
"The fishermen are dealing with a difficult situation," he continued. "Under the quota system they are prevented from landing more than a certain amount of fish. The fuel costs are skyrocketing. Insurance and every cost they have is going up yet the price of fish is not increasing."
On a brighter side, Mr. Conroy said he might be able to help offer fish to markets farther south than New Bedford. "There may be a way I can be involved that can be helpful to the community and the existing fishermen and not lose money," he said.
Gregory Mayhew, who runs the 75-foot fishing boat Unicorn out of Menemsha, spoke to the economic realities of the industry. He said there is always a better price in New Bedford, and he usually unloads there; so does his brother, Jonathan, who owns the Quitsa Strider II.
"None of the markets on the Island can handle the large volume," Mr. Mayhew said this week. "The profit margin is so much better in New Bedford because they already have the filleters, they already have the labor and they don't have the transportation costs that Menemsha has."
He added: "I'd really love to sell here in Menemsha if we could make the money."