After a period of dormancy, the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust has resurfaced with a renewed mission to support the Island commercial fishing community. The board of directors has been meeting since July, a new website went up in August and the group held its first public meeting last week.
Since the beginning, the group’s focus has been on establishing a permit bank that would allow the trust to purchase permits and quotas – which can cost thousands in areas closed to permitting – and lease them to local fishermen at an affordable rate.
But after three years, those efforts are still conceptual. The trust’s immediate challenge is making itself known to the community. Twelve people attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, including six of the seven board members. Many of those in attendance were commercial fishermen based in Menemsha, the hub of the Island fishing industry.
The organization grew out of the former Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, in the midst of the association’s lawsuit against Cape Wind. Some who attended the meeting Tuesday expressed deep regrets over the lawsuit, which ended in 2012 with a settlement. The complete terms were never made public.
Stephen Larsen, a commercial fisherman based in Menemsha, said the result should open people’s eyes to the urgency of protecting ocean fisheries. “It’s like giving away farm property,” he said. “You can’t get it back.”
The association had argued at that time that the proposed wind farm on Horshoe Shoal, situated between the Cape and Islands, would devastate the local fishing industry. The settlement called on the association, which has since disbanded, to support the wind farm “as a sustainable source of clean energy for the future.”
Cape Wind agreed to work with the association to establish a permit bank and a new program, Vineyard Wild Caught, which advocates for local seafood.
Some were upset that the local fishing community did not have more of a role in the settlement process, and others commented on the need to correct public perceptions.
“The biggest thing is that it brought bad press to us,” said one fisherman who did not want to be named. “It almost would have been better to do nothing and get nothing than make it look like we agreed with it.”
Warren Doty of Chilmark, who was president of the association during the lawsuit, played a key role in orchestrating the settlement. He also expressed regret over the outcome and took responsibility for not communicating about the settlement more publicly.
As the legal fees climbed, Mr. Doty said, the association stopped answering phone calls from its lawyers. “We didn’t have enough money,” he said. “We owed them $25,000; they had already donated $75,000 themselves. So they suggested, let’s try to see if we can get a settlement. That was a mistake, but that’s what we did.”
Wayne Iacono, a Menemsha lobsterman, pointed out that several other groups were still engaged in lawsuits against Cape Wind. “I don’t think there is any guarantee Cape Wind is going to happen,” he said.
Now the fishermen’s trust is focusing on the future, with the immediate goal of gathering community support. President John Keene sought to make it clear on Tuesday that all opinions were welcome at the meetings. “That way the air is always cleared,” he said.
“It would be nice if this room was packed tonight, so people – angry or sad or happy – [could] get their voice out,” he said. He suggested that the board partner with other community groups, but emphasized the importance of community support.
The trust faces an uphill battle on many fronts, as state and federal regulations make it increasingly difficult for fishermen to access local waters. Many view the current management policies as especially hostile toward the small-boat commercial fishing that once thrived on the Vineyard.
Much of the discussion focused on the difficulty younger people face in buying permits and leasing quotas. Longtime fisherman John Larsen said leasing permits would allow young people to gain fishing experience and become eligible to purchase regular permits later on.
Matthew Mayhew, a 32-year-old fisherman and electrician, said the Island fishing industry had not diversified fast enough at a time when doing so would have been affordable. Now fishermen are struggling to find ways to branch out.
He said the preservation trust was a big step in the right direction. “If this had been there 10 years ago, we’d have a lot better fishing community going on right now,” he said. “We’d have a lot more access and we could have kept a lot of the quota that had been taken from us in the past as the result of regulations.”
“It will never be like it was,” said Mr. Keene, an excavator who grew up in Menemsha. “But [doing] something is better than watching it fade out.”
The next public meeting of the preservation trust is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, at the Agricultural Hall.
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