There are many iconic skylines, but not many as proud and cherished as the stabilizer arms that reach above the fish markets from Menemsha’s sister draggers, the Unicorn and the Quitsa Strider II. Loved by their captains, the fishermen in the harbor and the tourists who lunch by their hulls, the two have written many chapters of the proud and storied history of commercial fishing on Martha’s Vineyard.
Sadly, this summer, as you round the corner on your way towards Menemsha beach, the arms of the Quitsa Strider II will be absent. The 72-foot dragger is to be permanently retired to the salvage yard.
It is a true ending to a wonderful era. I grew up fishing the Quitsa Strider with my father, Jonathan Mayhew, and want the admirers of the vessel to know the real reasons for her demise, as well as my goal to sit in the pilothouse of a new (or newer) vessel that may bear the name Quitsa Strider.
There is a sense of failure that I have to live with, a sadness in knowing that my generation of Islanders could be the last to fish the waters in and around the Vineyard.
Though most might see the rusty vessel and think that it is a result of there being no fish left to catch, there is a much more complex reason for the deterioration of the vessel.
The sole issue is access, or in other words, the type of permit and how much quota you are lucky enough to have to go and fish with. The permits that are issued to every commercial fishing vessel are part of a complex system. There are vastly different quotas for every type of permit based on a targeted species and whether one is fishing in state or federal waters. Additionally, permits can no longer be obtained; they have been tied historically to moratoriums. Complicating matters even more, starting in the early 1990s, the government reduced the amount of quota through a variety of regulations, which whittles down the amount of fish you can harvest. The amounts have gotten so low, the only way to keep fishing is to buy more permits and stack more quotas.
But you need not look any further than the city of New Bedford to see that commercial fishing is thriving. There are plenty of fish.
The key to a vibrant fishery is to have access to the right permits with adequate catch quotas. State and federal regulations have greatly reduced catch quotas, and big companies have been buying up the permits, thereby monopolizing the quotas.
The shiny vessels that you see on the docks of New Bedford, which always seem to have a fresh coat of paint and state-of-the-art equipment, are almost all corporately owned. Today, more than 80 per cent of the groundfish quota has been consolidated, which means that it has been taken from fishing vessels like the Quitsa Strider and other family-owned vessels in small working fishing harbors like Menemsha.
The regulatory agencies decided to regulate the fisheries, not by the type of fishing gear, but by how many people can go fishing. The corporations are running the game of musical chairs and are in an opportunistic position. They have undue leverage and protection and far less competition in catching the fish.
In other words, the big guys have the ocean pretty much to themselves, which means little competition and higher prices for fish. If you want it, they’ve got it, and you have to pay their price — no competition.
Left with just a small state fishing permit, the Strider could not operate profitably, let alone generate adequate capital to invest in upgraded equipment. It has been an unwinnable battle. The way things are going, our Islanders, winter and summer, will no longer enjoy fresh fish that are caught and landed on the Vineyard. Instead, our fish are to be caught by corporate vessels in Vineyard waters, landed in New Bedford, processed and treated with sodium tripolyphosphates to gain water weight and prolong shelf life — and then, days later, arrive by ferry to the Island where we can pay a premium for our own not-so-fresh fish.
Despite this, the small fishermen of the Vineyard are not giving up. A group of Chilmark fishermen and I have developed a credible business plan and hope to attract investment capital from a group of investors who share a love for the Island and the heritage it represents. Like any industry, there is opportunity in change, and we believe that commercial fishing is no exception.
Last year the group formed a not-for-profit entity called Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, a 501c3 organization with a mission to save commercial fishing on Martha’s Vineyard.
It is our goal that through hard work, determination and a solid business model, we can preserve our way of life for generations to come, providing our own Island with fresh local fish so that many more generations of Island fishermen and families will share in the rewarding life that has been mine and so many before me. We want to save Menemsha.
Matthew Mayhew lives in Chilmark and is a member of a long line of family fishermen in Menemsha.