Captain Scott MacAllister has just spent weeks indoors putting an enormous amount of time, energy and money into his boat, F/V Carol Marie, but he did it happily remembering late last fall …
He was in the throes of groundfish season and had been working 16-hour days, barely sleeping during the hours he had before waking up in the middle of the night to set off from the Chatham Fish Pier once again.
So he was exhausted, but running on adrenaline and what seems like a perennially great attitude, when he made it to his first set of gillnets that had been soaking overnight. This set, like the day before, didn’t have a ton of fish.
There are three sets, 15 nets in each, but this was an inauspicious beginning; the first few 300-foot nets came up almost empty or with fish looking like grey pajamas, all floppy and soft. Hag fish, red and snakelike, slid across the deck – they ate all the meat.
There was suddenly a burst of gunfire.
MacAllister, having shot over the starboard side of the boat, walked back to the wheelhouse with a handgun and a grin.
“That should scare the demons off the boat,” he said.
The last time he had a bad set one of his deck hands, Brandt Sessoms, set off a bunch of fireworks.
“Worked like a charm,” said MacAllister, who looks like he could be in high school even though he is 25. “We always carry something that is really fun.”
MacAllister’s boat with crew Sessoms, Stephanie Sykes and that day Dusan Uksanovic (from Montengro, heading home a few days later), is considered the youngest in the fleet of 80 or so boats in and around Chatham.
MacAllister knows he is an anomaly. Fishing isn’t considered the best career path nowadays – too hard, too unpredictable, too uncertain.
“There aren’t a lot of young people going into it,” he says. “It is just too much work.”
When the majority of the fishermen started there was far less regulation, and fishing permits were free.
Not so now. MacAllister used the money his grandmother (a day trader in the stock market) left him for college and instead bought a boat, named Carol Marie after her. But then he had to use money he was saving for a house to pay for a groundfish permit, so he moved in with his father.
Still, he’s happy. He thinks he did the right thing and got a good deal. The boat and the permit, which included some monkfish quota, cost about $165,000.
MacAllister pretty much always knew he would go fishing. He was born on the Cape but moved off when his parents divorced, going to technical school in Franklin.
He liked building and fixing things. MacAllister was offered a few jobs in his field, facilities management. But he had been shellfishing summers since he was 13 and fishing since he was a sophomore and he wasn’t letting go.
Just before he graduated high school he remembers talking to his guidance counselor who said he wasn’t going to make any money fishing. MacAllister said nothing. But what he thought was, “I am going to make more than you!”
“They just don’t understand it,” MacAllister says. “Everybody down here fishes. It’s just norm.”
Less so now. Before the 1980s it was like the fishermen ran the town, but now some people don’t even know they are there. That’s why it is hard to find crew. MacAllister started in high school working on a boat, F/V Constance Sea owned by Greg Connors; he was friends with Connors’ son.
He spent close to five years on Connors’ boat before getting his own and was lucky enough to find a first mate he knows well too.
MacAllister first met Stephanie Sykes when he was 15, and they were reintroduced more than a year and a half ago. Sykes grew up on the Cape, but went to Taber Academy and then on to the University of New Hampshire.
“I really like fishing,” says Sykes, her long blond hair tied back in a braid. Besides, sitting in an office cubicle with no windows isn’t really her thing, Sykes adds.
It is not unusual for them to leave the dock at midnight, get over the infamous Chatham bar, haul gear full of skates until around 3 a.m. and then start on dogfish. Ideally MacAllister will be back at the dock by 4 p.m. and after unloading the catch, stopping to grab a sandwich wrapped in plastic, some Red Bull, cigarettes and Hostess chocolate snowballs, he’s home by 8.
MacAllister intends to work hard until he retires, though “maybe not as hard as I do now.”
He worries about talk amongst members of the fleet that the rules should be changed to create a limited access quota system for skates, maybe even dogfish. Now everyone can catch the same amount, but a limited access system could hurt MacAllister who hasn’t spent enough time fishing to build up his catch numbers.
To catch groundfish, such as cod, he has to lease quota from the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which he purchases at a lower-than-market price. The goal of the program is to help fishermen build a successful business, reinvest, and eventually buy their own quota.
So far, so good. Somedays MacAllister and his crew all come home with $1,000 in their pockets.
“It keeps my crew happy when we fish,” MacAllister said with a grin.
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at email@example.com. This story was excerpted from the Fishermen’s Alliance e-magazine, capecodfishermen.org.