Waterfront Wisdom - Winter Reflections

With thoughts on new port studies...
Doreen Leggett is Community Journalist and Communications Officer with Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance

This time of year, Saquatucket Harbor’s floating docks are full of commercial fishing boats: scallopers, gillnetters, long liners.

If one strolled there in the summer the view would be very different, as many fishermen head back to the Chatham Fish Pier and Stage Harbor because the Harwich port gets too crowded with seasonal pleasure boats.

Ports across the Cape, and across the state, each have unique personalities and most are of tremendous importance to fishermen. But how important, and how user-friendly, varies widely from port to port.

The Chatham Fish Pier, perhaps the premier commercial port on the Cape, is dangerous to navigate for part of the year, and only getting worse, because of shoaling issues. Nearby Stage Harbor has issues of its own, and a dredge is now attempting to clear the snarl at its entrance.

This matters to all of us. The value of seafood landings in Chatham alone was $55 million from 2016 through 2018 – and that is just the value to the boats, not the associated economic ripples. The total value of Massachusetts commercial fishery landings directly to vessels, again not including restaurant or retail sales, was $605 million in 2017.

Officials and residents are often surprised by the economic value ports provide. Further investments are sure to provide economic benefits that ripple across communities.

Valuable information like this should be at every town’s fingertips, helping public officials make smart, informed policy decisions.

That’s where a new port study comes in.

“Developing Port Profiles and a Commercial Fishing Infrastructure Assessment for Massachusetts Coastal Harbors,” is a partnership between the state, Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. 

The goal is to develop port profiles to ensure that needs of commercial fishing communities are met, and provide a benchmark for municipalities to improve current conditions.

Every Massachusetts harbormaster, as well as a broad sample of commercial fishermen, were surveyed and asked questions to learn about which fisheries use which ports, if infrastructure like ice, bait, storage, and offloading capacity are available, and what are the most important challenges and needed improvements.

The report is being compiled. It is expected to go public later this year.  

Harbormasters were also asked if they have noticed growth or decline in fishing boats, if there are moorings and slips dedicated solely to commercial fishing, if space for commercial fishermen is discretionary or required, and what three top infrastructure improvements would be.

Fishermen were asked why they chose their homeports, if their ports have recently experienced infrastructure repair or upgrade, and what policy changes might be helpful including standardized fees, tax credits, and routine dredging.

There are about 70 ports up and down the Masschusetts coast; big ones, little ones. Fishermen have noted discrepancies in how ports manage their fleets. Concerns are big and small: old equipment, variations in dockage rates between ports, commercial boats being pushed out, inadequate facilities.

Staff at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries realized the work being done to protect and support the fisheries will be moot if fishermen can’t land or unload economically.

Shoaling at Stage Harbor is one example of a hurdle. Lack of an ice machine on the Hyannis waterfront is another. How the Chatham pier only has space for two boats to unload at a time is yet another.

Harbors and commercial fishing are at the heart of what we now call the blue economy. A study like this will make it easier to see and prove how smart investment in those harbors will benefit us all.

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