CHATHAM –The Chatham Fish Pier was packed, the upper deck was filled with people giggling at seals floating on their backs or watching fishermen coming in with boats full of dogfish that swished down the metal chute to be packed in ice and sent on their way.
“It’s usually crowded. Sometimes it will stay empty for five minutes and then it gets bombed again,” said Pier Host Rick Miszkin on a recent sunny Friday. “They see the guys unload the fish and the best part is that it doesn’t cost anything.”
Mark Simonitsch, a retired weir fisherman who has been a pier host for several years, said it is often the younger set that doesn’t want to leave and needs to be dragged away by their parents.
“That all of this fish activity takes place near the tourist business to be seen on Chatham's Main Street, or near large Shore Road homes and the exclusive Chatham Bars Inn, adds to a certain lack of reality of seeing these fishermen at work. Here at the pier is proof that the New England seafaring tradition and character are alive and in evidence,” Simonitsch said.
Twin boys, about four years old, laughed and flipped through Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman's Alliance learning books they had just gotten from Miszkin, who has been a fishing captain for close to 40 years and is still only semi-retired as he goes shellfishing and catches bass whenever he can.
He looked out at the children of various ages who were hanging over the wooden railing.
“You never know one of these kids might get interested,” and become a fisherman, he mused.
He and several other fishermen are at the pier four days a week, part of a program which extends back 13 years. It was designed to teach locals and visitors about the importance of fish, fishing and maritime heritage. Over time there have been issues with new residents proposing to change the character of Chatham, rules that would prohibit dinghies on beaches or fishing gear in yards. Having retired fishermen on the pier talking about the Cape’s fishing heritage and the multi-million dollar economic impact of the commercial industry helps provide a perspective many lack.
This year the mission broadened and the Fishermen’s Alliance partnered with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium.
Marianne Long, the education director for AWSC, said her organization is always looking for ways to engage the public in discussions around white shark conservation and share important public safety information. Seeing that up to 3,000 people visit the fish pier a day, it’s an ideal spot to have those conversations, particularly since the white shark population has grown in recent years, taking advantage of the abundance of grey seals.
The partnership has a larger value as well.
“It is also allowing us as different organizations all focused on ocean conservation to deliver a similar message to the public and have a stronger impact. As people go from the pier to learn about the local fisheries, to the seashore to see seals, or to our shark center, they are all hearing a similar message of the importance of the health of our ocean. Working together to deliver this message will hopefully lead to a greater understanding by the public of why protecting our oceans is necessary,” Long said.
Scout Leonard, an intern with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, was with Miszkin last week.
“I just met the biggest Shark Week fan,” said Leonard with a smile nearly as bright as the fluorescent orange Pier Host shirt she was wearing.
“She had never heard about our Sharktivity app,” Leonard said, explaining the app notifies people when a white shark is sighted or detected nearby and lets people enter their own sightings.
She has one on her phone, Miszkin doesn’t. He pulls out his phone to show why. It’s a flip phone.
“I keep him informed,” she smiled.
Providing information is the primary goal of pier hosts. Miszkin, who had already met and chatted with visitors from Denmark, Texas and Pennsylvania, said he is generally asked what kind of fish are coming in and where are they going. This time of year it’s mostly dogfish, and because there are no processing facilities on the Cape, they are trucked to New Bedford, though some come back to the Cape.
“If they want to eat these fish, they are available,” Miszkin said, adding that more than a few people stop by the Chatham Fish Pier Market on their way out to purchase fish.
Since dogfish are so abundant, the Fishermen’s Alliance and others are trying to spread the word that they are delicious. Now the vast percentage of the fish goes overseas.
“Buying local is important,” Miszkin said.
Sherri Schwartz, visiting from West Hartford, Conn., has been to the Cape a lot. But she knew very little about commercial fishing on the peninsula and was asking Leonard questions about the industry.
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.