Visitors streamed into Menemsha on Thursday evening for a rare look inside the Island’s commercial fishing industry. The first-ever “Meet the Fleet” festival drew a young, vibrant crowd to Menemsha Harbor, where most of the Island’s commercial fleet was docked and Island fishermen offered demonstrations in their trade.

Near the fish markets, kids crouched around a large wooden box divided into five lanes for crab racing, among the most popular events of the evening. Just below, on Dutcher Dock, families and friends enjoyed an opportunity to mingle with fishermen and learn about the industry. Good Night Louise, a five-piece rock band, kept things lively with a performance aboard the lobster boat Martha Elizabeth.

Joey Huang and Mike Holtham of Menemsha Fish House expertly fillet some fish. — Alex Elvin

The smell of fish and seawater, along with the mellow grooves of Good Night Louise, filled the warm evening air as the sun began to lower over Menemsha Bight.

The famed Unicorn dragger, her days in the commercial fleet at an end, was across the way on the West Dock.

Many other commercial boats, each unique and almost all from the Vineyard, were docked stern-to along Dutcher Dock, so visitors could see onto their decks. The waterfront read like a directory of local fishing boats: Annie K., Chili Dog, Four Kids, Freedom, Merlin, Miss Emily, No Regrets and others.

The historic eastern-rig dragger Roann had made the six-hour journey from Mystic Seaport and seemed at home on the Vineyard, where she fished for 14 years. Visitors explored her sloping wooden deck and ducked below to see the massive GM 1271 engine. The old dragger made her last fishing trip in 1997 (her 50th year) and has since been rebuilt and restored.

Other historic boats on display included Menemsha’s own eastern-rig draggers, Little Lady and Richard & Arnold, which are still fishing. Posters with historic images of Island boats and fishermen were nailed to the weathered piles lining the dock.

Many visitors had opted for free shuttle service from a parking lot on Tabor House Road. By 4:30 p.m. the harbor was even more crowded than usual.

Captain Hershel West and Captain Jimmy Morgan are on hand. — Alison L. Mead

David White, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, which began planning for the event last year, said the turnout had exceeded all expectations.

Local teenagers were selling T-shirts, hats and other items under the tent. But the main goal, Mr. White said, was to shine a light on the commercial fishing industry, a vital but often unseen part of Island culture.

Since regrouping last year, the preservation trust has obtained nonprofit status and taken steps to develop a permit bank to support Island fishermen. The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the trust, recently purchased the Island’s last groundfish permit from captain Greg Mayhew, who fished out of Menemsha for decades on the Unicorn. Local fishermen can now lease the groundfish quota at an affordable rate. The trust also hopes to establish a revolving loan fund.

But a central part of its mission is simply to raise awareness of the challenges facing the industry and to generate community support.

Wes Brighton, a Menemsha fisherman and trust member, said people enjoyed seeing the industry up close and “feeling like they can be a part of it, like they are welcome, instead of kind of shut out.”

Crab racing was a big draw. — Alison L. Mead

Deana Brooksher of Georgia was visiting with friends and family. “I think it’s awesome,” she said of the festival. “The only hard thing is parking. But I guess you guys have a shuttle.” She called that a brilliant idea. (By the end of the evening, about 35 cars were parked in the lot on Tabor House Road.)

At around 6 p.m., state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matt Beaton arrived in the harbor aboard the Environmental Police patrol boat Thomas Paine.

While visiting the Island this summer, Mr. Beaton had seen signs for the event and didn’t want to miss it. As a student at RPI almost 20 years ago, he had written a detailed assessment of the Island’s commercial fishing industry, and in the process gotten to know Menemsha harbor master Dennis Jason. He and Mr. Jason reunited and shared some memories on the dock.

Mr. Beaton saw the festival as a hopeful sign for the industry. “It certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said. “Putting a face to the boats and to the names – it’s great. Public awareness is hugely important.”

Like many others, he saw government policies as the biggest challenge facing the industry. “That’s why I wanted to talk to these guys and hear firsthand what’s making their jobs difficult,” he said. He advocated for “sensible regulation,” but acknowledged how complicated the process can be.

Local elementary students created Meet the Fleet artwork. — Alison L. Mead

But the atmosphere on Thursday was one of curiosity and celebration.

Much of the excitement focused on a net-mending competition, in which four fishermen faced off in front of a large gillnet hung across the piles. Mr. Brighton explained that net-mending was a fundamental skill for fishermen that might be needed at any hour of the day. More than just closing the tear, it requires re-weaving the net pattern. Competitors furiously looped and tied as the crowd cheered. Cod fisherman Todd Goodell took first in each of two rounds.

Other fishermen stood under the tent and shucked clams and oysters from aquaculture farms around the Island. Visitors left donations in a plastic jar – perhaps the best deal on local shellfish that night.

Toward the end of the evening, children flocked to a pair of fillet tables on the dock to poke and admire two striped bass and an enormous fluke. Supplied with metal fish scalers, they gleefully went to work on the stripers. Mike Holtham and Joey Huang of Menemsha Fish House expertly filleted the fish, describing the process to onlookers, and dropping the remains in a bucket.

Noting the success of the first Meet the Fleet, Mr. White looked forward to next year. “It’s sort of a first iteration of this,” he said, as people headed back to their cars under a fiery pink sky. “Next year we expect we’ll come back stronger."

More pictures from Meet the Fleet.