A new fishermen’s organization formed on the Island in the last month: the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. The group has arisen at a time when commercial fishing is at its worst, when fewer Vineyards call themselves commercial fishermen than ever before.
Commercial fishermen are the last of the hunter-gatherers on this Island where commerce has shifted from the sea to other more lucrative industries. Still there are fishermen who rise early in the morning and spend their daylight hours on the water. Mavericks, by nature. They aren’t prone to spending nights at a table sorting out strategic goals for hours at a time. They aren’t accustomed, even, to sitting down.
Politics may not be their thing, but Vineyard fishermen’s concern for the environment dates back to the beginning of time. Their expertise is the tides, the shoals, the movement of the fishes of this area, and the ways to manage those fish so they don’t disappear, fish and fishermen both. The fisherman’s being is more tuned to the sinew of our community than so many of us in other occupations.
Vineyard recreational fishermen have a far richer history of being deeply involved in the affairs of their sport. They are proactive, quick to discuss issues at their various groups’ meetings, quick to show up at land management meetings and to advocate for shoreside access. Their groups’ names — the Surfcasters, the Rod and Gun Club, the Derby — are as familiar as the names of the best fishing beaches.
The Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association, a recreational club, was formed 20 years ago by a group of anglers who hoped to keep a connection to the shore while the real estate market was trying to turn neighborhoods into gated communities; efforts were under way to shut down shoreside access. The association has taken many steps to support sharing the sport.
The senior Island recreational sport organization is the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, a group only two years shy of celebrating its centennial. Rod and Gun club members have worked hard to support fishing in the water and on the shore for a long time, with a particular interest in underwriting programs that introduce kids to the sport. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, now in its 64th year, at times takes an interest in fishing issues.
So the Vineyard’s commercial fishermen already know well how strongly an organization can speak.
But the formation of this organization is a new and significant step, and it is coming from a mixture of old fishermen and their sons. Some of them may have been around this path before.
In 1993, Island fishermen formed an organization called the Martha’s Vineyard Commercial Fishermen Association. In the short two or three years of its existence, the group was able to persuade the state fisheries managers that large draggers working day and night in Vineyard Sound were destructive to the fluke resource. They were right, and the state banned night fishing. It was clearly the voice of Vineyarders working together that brought about the change.
When the commercial fishermen’s organization was formed in May of 1993, then-state Rep. Eric Turkington was their featured speaker and he urged the group to pool their resources. “The pay off is tremendous,” Mr. Turkington told the fishermen. Back then, they had the administrative support of Alfred F. (Al) Moran, branch manager of the Seaman’s Bethel. He was a co-founder of the fishermen’s group and gave them backbone, though he seldom spoke at the meetings. He died in 1994.
“No one on the waterfront was more responsible for helping the commercial fishermen of the Island pool their political power together than he,” I wrote in a tribute to him that appeared in the June 10 Vineyard Gazette, soon after his death.
Go back farther in time. In 1971 there was talk of an organization, a fishermen’s cooperative, that lasted but a short time. In 1972, the Edgartown Fishermen’s Association evolved into becoming the Martha’s Vineyard Fishery Resources Committee.
From the 1970s through the 1990s there was an Edgartown Seafood Festival which helped to fund the Edgartown Fishermen’s Association. But interest in the group waned. In the last stretch, they offered free beer to get attendance up but even that didn’t work; the association disbanded in 1997 after more than three decades.
“The demise of the association more than 35 years old was unfortunate, and fishermen from other Island towns should take notice,” I wrote in September, 1997. The topical fishermen’s column also included news that the Edgartown zoning board, through a decision, had closed the only site in town where the fishermen could process their conch.
In 1940 there was an Island fishermen’s cooperative and their goal was to have influence on the marketing of their fish. Who can remember what happened to that group?
More than ever, perhaps, the Island’s commercial fishermen need to be organized. The paradigm for surviving in their profession has changed dramatically. There are no more lone voices speaking up at federal, state and local regulatory meetings. Those who can persuade the leadership now act as groups. So the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association hopes to pool their spirited resources, to have one larger voice in a political climate that no longer listens to one small one, however well informed.
Earlier this year the Dukes County commissioner Tristan Israel and county manager Russell Smith hosted a meeting, expressing their support to help a new fishing organization get started. They couldn’t offer much, but the county would bring the organization some help. Now they are up and running.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission in its heyday of helping commerce on the Island, offered to help the fishermen, hosting meetings at their New York avenue office and holding public hearings and meetings. The time may come again when the commission can help fishermen and the managing of the resource.
In the weeks and months ahead, as this organization reaches out to more commercial fishermen and even the recreational fishermen for membership, this is a good time for all of us to give support. A child must crawl before it walks. Last week, the group met at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in the late afternoon and over 35 attended. Their e-mail list has risen to over 50.
The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, based in Chatham, has earned accolades not only for its role in promoting the small-time boat fishermen, but for advocating for small-time waterfront communities. The group member are not only political; they host fun events that bring the community out in support. A Vineyard-based fishing group could learn from that level of organization.
It would be great for this community and the young if there were a fishermen’s association. A fishermen’s organization deserves the support of the community at large, fisherman and non fisherman alike.
Mark Alan Lovewell has covered the waterfront as a reporter for the Gazette over many years.