In the early days of his weir fishing business, Kurt Martin had a friend who asked him take along 20-year-old Nick Muto, who was kicking around at home.
Martin did. One April day the new guy was fooling around in the skiff and the outboard motor popped off and sank about 20 feet.
“‘I screwed up,’” Martin remembers Muto saying. Muto stripped down, dove into the water, tied a rope around the outboard motor, and got it back.
That is a great example of Muto’s attitude, said Martin; if he broke it, he could fix it. So it is no surprise to Martin that Muto is a successful captain today.
“He was hungry and it shows now. He loves fishing. He has a couple of boats and he goes for it,” Martin said.
Muto’s versatility and work ethic were in evidence recently.
Muto is allowed to fish in what otherwise is a closed area because he has cameras onboard that record everything he catches, an accountability that grants him greater flexibility from regulators.
That perk is now available to more than 20 captains around New England. But Muto is one of an even smaller group granted a federal Exempted Fishing Permit, with help from the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, to rig his boat with gillnets and go groundfishing while also being allowed to catch a bluefin tuna on the same trip.
“It’s just one of the added benefits of electronic monitoring,” Muto said. “We can use different gear types and make it more profitable.”
Muto was able to land groundfish such as cod, plus a tuna—which he happily sold to Chatham Fish and Lobster—plus one halibut, which he also is catching under a pilot program launched by the Fishermen’s Alliance and several partners.
“We are busy all day,” he said.
All several days, actually.
Muto and his crew of three left Chatham in the late afternoon and arrived on Georges Bank 12 hours later.
The second day at sea, under the watchful eye of the camera, they were throwing back haddock that were too small to keep. Those discards, as they are called, count toward the allotted pounds, or quota, Muto is required to report.
Tuna were hanging out by the boat snagging the haddock. So Muto put a hook in one, swung it over the side, and sure enough a bluefin bit.
“It’s something that breaks up the monotony of the trip. It’s a morale booster,” Muto said.
Reeling in a halibut provides excitement as well. Halibut used to be a thriving fishery but now fishermen are limited to one fish per trip. Muto’s biggest weighed close to 200 pounds.
Local fishermen have been providing George Maynard, research coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, with hundreds of halibut samples so Maynard and other scientists can gauge the health of the population. The hope is that this crucial information will lead to re-opening the fishery in the United States; Canada, just a few hundred miles away already has a thriving, sustainable fishery.
Muto, 39, also goes monkfishing and owns a lobster boat, but he came to the industry late.
“Commercial fishing was never on my radar. I wish it was,” he said.
He and two younger brothers grew up on the Cape. His dad was a postmaster in Orleans, mom a preschool teacher.
When he got older he worked in restaurants, including some no longer around like LoCicero’s in Orleans and The Sou'Wester in Chatham (where he was a bouncer), and imagined opening his own someday.
Out of high school he ended up at Salve Regina in Rhode Island and likely would have followed the food service trajectory if he didn’t get involved in another business, illegal at the time—marijuana sales. Superbowl Sunday of his junior year, 2000, he was arrested, spent eight days in prison, got kicked out of school. Besides the fact that he owed his parents $30,000, things went alright.
“There was a never a conviction for a misdemeanor, it was kind of a non-issue,” he said.
But he ended up back on Cape in February. He knew Carl Johnston on the Honey Do, a dragger out of Chatham, and readily joined the crew.
Johnston introduced him to Martin, who needed someone to clean lobster pots in his garage and work the traps.
“I was into it. The money was good, we were outside, we were on boats. It was cool. It checked all the boxes,” Muto said.
Martin ended up getting Muto a job on the Dawn T. with Captain Stu Tolley. He worked with Tolley for three years and then Captain Mike Russo for three years. He bought a lobster boat in 2008, which he named the Lost because he had no idea what to name it. He sold her five years ago to buy another and named the Miss Evelyn after his daughter.
He had met Evie’s mom, Sarah, at a local gym and ended up not only married but with a brief stint as a cage fighter.
Mixed martial arts was up and coming so when the gym gave him an opportunity on their team, he was in.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was the most present I’ve ever been. It calms you down, gives you an outlet.”
While that was unfolding, Tolley approached him about running the boat with the understanding he would buy it.
Now he owns two boats and sees a lot of opportunities in the fisheries.
"Nick has embraced the challenges of fishing on Cape Cod,” noted John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “He has diversified into multiple fisheries, hired young local crew and often led the way on adopting new science and technology to improve fisheries management.”
Muto has decided to engage in fisheries policy, which can be frustrating, even maddening; he is on a monkfish advisory panel and is chair of the board of directors for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“If I am going to be a part of this I owe it to myself and the future of the industry to be involved. I have no right to complain if I’m not.”
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.