Nelson C. Smith, 87, has had plenty of water pass under his keel. And observed many sharks off his bow. The retired Edgartown charter fishing captain, who has had many jobs on the waterfront, predicts an increase in shark sightings in Vineyard waters. As long as the seal population continues to rise around the Vineyard, Mr. Smith said he believes the seal’s worse predator, the great white shark, will also increase, as it seems to have done around Nantucket and certain areas of Cape Cod, according to recent reports. “More seals are showing up at Muskeget Channel. It is loaded with seals,” Mr. Smith said. He has heard reports of seals being spotted at The Hooter, a buoy marking the southernmost part of the Muskeget Channel.
Mr. Smith has seen sharks throughout his career on the water. He saw sharks off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska when he served with the Navy Seebees during the World War II era. He saw sharks on Georges Bank when he worked as a fisherman, a swordfisherman and a sea scalloper from the 1940s to the early 1960s.
And he has seen sharks close to the Vineyard, just outside Edgartown harbor.
Mr. Smith was a hired hand, briefly, for the first and second Jaws movies. In that first summer of the filming of Jaws, Mr. Smith recalled bringing the fishing boat Orca from Boston down to the Vineyard for the filming in March of 1974. Mr. Smith remembers Orca as a 42-foot vessel with a four-cylinder diesel engine. “She was in pretty good shape,” he said.
“They wanted to put me in the movie,” Mr. Smith said, but he turned down the request in favor of keeping his summer fishing charter business clients.
Years later, in the filming of Jaws II, Mr. Smith appeared as a Chappaquiddick ferry operator. He was a Chappy Ferry captain for 16 years. It was a good job, because he could do his summer fishing charters while also working on the ferry through the year.
Mr. Smith recalls in 1969, well before anyone thought of movies about sharks, he worked for the Edgartown Yacht Club and was overseeing a sailboat race outside of Edgartown harbor when he spotted a large shark swimming nearby. While watching a fleet of racing boats, a number of Woodpussies and Beach boats racing, he said: “It was between Sturgeon Flats and the Gas Buoy, two miles off Edgartown Light. We were patrolling in Patrol II. I saw two fins. It was either a porbeagle or a mako,” Mr. Smith said.
He remembers fishing with his son, Nelson, and his friend, Ed Prada, south of the Vineyard in waters that are familiar to offshore fishermen as The Fingers. It is north of an area called the Dumping Ground. It was there that they spotted a great white.
“It was 27 feet in length,” Mr. Smith said. That is saying a lot, for the boat they were in was his 35-foot fishing boat Loyal. He said the fish seemed to be just meandering around and came pretty close to the boat. What struck him most was seeing the fish a second time.
The second time around Mr. Smith said, “We saw red bottom paint on its side.” Mr. Smith said the spotting of the red paint suggested the shark was a good deal closer to the hull of his boat than he originally thought. It was also fairly routine, Mr. Smith said, to see a hammerhead shark.
Mr. Nelson also has plenty of memories of encountering swordfish. It was not unusual during a day of swordfishing to come up with at least one near the Vineyard. They usually weighed anywhere from 200 to 400 pounds.
Years ago, catching a swordfish wasn’t just an offshore trip. He said he remembers in 1955, operating a 40-foot yawl on a two-week charter and spending a night in Tarpaulin Cove. He was captaining Shallowmar for a customer named William Bradford. “We called him Gov,” Mr. Smith said. “He was a direct descendant of the Mayflower crew.”
The boat was an impressive Casey 40. “I always kept swordfish gear onboard,” he said. “We anchored for the night at Tarpaulin Cove. Next morning, we rose, I saw a swordfish finning. I woke everyone up and we went for it.”
They brought the large fish to Menemsha, where it was cut up. “I got half. My Dad got the other half. That fish [kept in the freezer] lasted all winter,” Mr. Smith said.
For 25 years Mr. Smith continued his charter business but also worked for Katharine Brady Sutphin Ficks, a summer resident of Edgartown. She owned a large powerboat called Governor, which described her demeanor on the water. Mr. Smith ran the boat and Mrs. Ficks caught the fish. She was an avid angler and frequently took her friends out with her for a day of fishing.
“I always called her Mrs. Ficks. She was extremely fussy. They nicknamed her the general for that. I took a lot of pride working for her,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t think I ever worked for anyone nicer.” She died in January 2007.
These days, Mr. Smith isn’t spending so much time on the water. Instead, he said he is working on his memories and hanging out with local veterans.
A longtime friend to Vineyard commercial fishermen is in the midst of an ongoing legal dispute with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration over the loss of his business and excessive enforcement and fines. Larry M. Yacubian, 64, of Punta Gorda, Fla., hasn’t fished since 2001. He is in a legal tangle over the circumstances that brought his fishing days to an end and the fines that were levied against him. The story is readily available online and was even the subject of a Dan Rather Reports/AXS TV program.
Mr. Yacubian claims he was wronged and unfairly put out of business by NOAA. The government brought the charges against the fisherman for his fishing actions in 2000, according to a report. The captain denied the charges, which involved allegedly fishing in a closed area.
Mr. Yacubian’s cause got a boost along with other fishermen when they were featured in a report called NOAA Enforcement Actions that was released in April of 2011 by the Department of Commerce. It was an internal review of a number of cases and found that NOAA’s actions had been excessive. They recommended that Mr. Yacubian be reimbursed $330,000 in fines he has paid. Now he is suing the federal government.
Mr. Yacubian used to fish out of New Bedford and Westport Point. He was a sea scalloper who employed a number of local Vineyard fishermen. Paul Bangs of Edgartown worked as a mate for Mr. Yacubian from the spring of 1980 to the end of 1985 on the fishing boat Zibet. He also worked for him from December 1987 to March of 1993 as mate on the Independence. Mr. Bangs said Mr. Yacubian hired Vineyard fishermen as crew because of their experience on the water. Mr. Yacubian went swordfishing and fishing on Georges Bank and he also spent time in the Gulf of Maine.
“I personally worked on the Zibet and Independence for close to 12 years. He landed product on the Island at Larsen’s and the fish dock in Vineyard Haven,” Mr. Bangs said. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Mr. Bangs said.
Sen. Scott Brown, along with Congressmen Barney Frank, John Tierney and Bill Keating wrote letters sympathetic to the captain’s plight,
Last week, the website Saving Seafood [savingseafood.org], wrote an extensive article about Mr. Yacubian’s lawsuit.
The Massachusetts commercial fluke season will close after Monday. The state Division of Marine Fisheries estimates that fishermen in the state will have harvested the year’s quota of 868,226 pounds. The season began for most Menemsha commercial fishermen on June 10. They’ve been fishing daily for their 300-pound trip limit.
“It was a good season,” said Capt. David Dutra, of the Provincetown fishing boat Richard & Arnold. Captain Dutra has been fishing out of Menemsha for years. He said they did well and the price was good.
For those who love to eat fluke, also called summer flounder and more recently labeled ‘Vineyard sole’ this is the weekend to enjoy.
As the fish gets taken off the market, the next best place to get some fish is to go out and catch it yourself. The fluke season will remain open for recreational fishermen until Sept. 30.