Edgartown Fishermen Sound Off Over Changes to Dinghy Docks

By RACHEL KOVAC

A proposal by the new owners of the Navigator Restaurant in Edgartown to relocate the dinghy docks outside the restaurant has commercial and charter fishermen up in arms.

Slated to go into effect in May of 2006, the plan saw quick approval with little or no public discussion this week. It surfaced for the first time at the weekly selectmen's meeting Monday and was approved by the park and recreation department yesterday morning.

"This is the biggest move the town has made on the harborfront since I've been the harbor master," said Charles J. Blair Jr., who has been in charge of the Edgartown harbor for 10 years. "This is a pretty big deal," he said.

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Proposed by Gerret C. Conover and Thomas E. LeClair, who bought the Navigator last November and want to rebuild it as an upscale establishment with retail space and a private club, the plan calls for moving the dinghy docks to the town bulkhead at the foot of Main street, which is used daily by commercial and charter fishermen and is near the headquarters for the annual Martha's Vineyard Stripped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The fishermen who currently use the pier will be relocated to a floating dock on the west side of Memorial Wharf. For the first time charter boats will be charged a fee for use of the floating docks. The four boats currently docked at Memorial Wharf will be relocated to moorings in the town harbor. Finally, the area around the pier and the wharf will be improved with street lamps, benches and new fish cleaning and weighing stations.

Mr. Conover and Mr. LeClair plan to pay for some of the improvements. Mr. Conover brought the plan to selectmen Monday afternoon and they turned it over to Mr. Blair and the park and recreation department.

As word went around the waterfront yesterday morning about the swiftly adopted changes for an area that has historically enjoyed public access, expressions from fishermen were red-hot.

"Fishing is what made this town, not private clubs and golf memberships," declared Donald Benefit, a commercial fisherman who owns the boat Payback. "This is just an insult to the town, to the people who live here year-round."

Mr. Blair said while this plan does displace a few boats, it improves access for dinghies and will help improve the look of the harborfront.

"These dinghies are 50 times more important than the four fishing boats," he said. "It's all about giving the visiting yachtsmen a place to tie up their dinghies and keep the town afloat. It's unfortunate that it comes down to that."

The owners of the Navigator have not yet begun the permitting process for rebuilding the old restaurant.

Mr. Blair said the Navigator owners plan to add more public access on the water side of the restaurant in order to comply with Chapter 91, a state law that protects the public's right of access to waterfront areas for fishing, fowling and navigation.

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But the fishermen said Memorial Wharf is unworkable for some boats because of its height.

"Memorial Wharf is too high for me to unload," said Mr. Benefit as he hosed down his boat. "I can't lift conch twenty feet in the air. I'd need a crane to lift them up to Memorial Wharf at low tide."

Mr. Blair agreed that the change will pose a problem for commercial fishermen.

"They will award the four fishing boats moorings so there's no waiting list," he said. "But this is a real hardship. Before they could drive to the dock and get on the boat and go fishing. Now they're going to drive to the dock, get in a dinghy and row to their boat."

Willy Hatch, a charter fisherman on the boat Machaca, said he is also concerned about the difference in height, because he often takes out people who are handicapped.

"Try and watch them get out of the boat at the wharf," he said. "You have tide issues too. Four feet into a boat? Someone is going to slip and get hurt."

At around noon on Thursday a crowd surrounded fishermen and their charter groups as they cleaned several striped bass caught earlier in the day. Children craned their necks to see, chatting excitedly.

"It's not right," said Dave Blackinton, captain of the Surfmaster. "We've got to clean fish. It's not going to make it right in the long term."

Congestion is another concern. "They've already pushed us into two slips for 12 boats," said Capt. Everett (Porky) Francis. He and his wife Carol Koser own Captain Porky's Fishing Charters in Edgartown.

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"There's no way it would work," said Todd Bassett, captain of the Magic Carpet charter sailboat. "Too many people would use this dock. There are already commercial fishermen here. Three charter sailboats use it. A lot of people come in and drop off people. It would be inaccessible to all of us.

"And what about all the kids who fish here? I fished here when I was a kid."

Mr. Blair said he doesn't think congestion will be any more of a problem than it is now.

"The floating dock is only going to hold so many boats," he said. "It's the same congestion we have now."

Ms. Koser disagreed.

"This is God's haven here," she said, waving her hand toward four boats docked at the pier unloading people and fish. "There's no good dockage for commercial boats trying to have a livelihood. We need to be bringing the boats back in."