CHATHAM — Saying it would only worsen the crush of vehicles and pedestrians there, selectmen last week rejected a pilot program that would have allowed fishermen to sell their catch directly to customers at the fish pier.
The proposal by fisherman Nick Muto sought permission to allow direct retail fish sales for a limited time at the fish pier, building on the success of similar programs in other locations, including Wychmere Harbor.
“It was wildly successful,” Muto said. “People loved it.” One goal is to provide a new revenue stream for fishermen who have been largely without a market for their catch because of restaurant closures. In the off season, some fishermen have also sold directly to customers at the town landing at 90 Bridge St., and business was brisk.
Muto’s proposal called for customers to stand in line for fish near the north jog, or to take part in a drive-through sales operation near the south jog. Social distancing and other measures would be in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and sales would take place only during certain hours.
Harbormaster Stuart Smith said he supports allowing fishermen to sell directly to customers, but not at the fish pier, where town regulations specifically prohibit the practice. There is limited docking capacity at the pier, which was designed specifically for fish to be offloaded to wholesalers. Selling directly to the public will create much more pedestrian traffic in a dangerous area, he said.
“It’s a very, very crowded facility and we’re going to be adding significant people traffic where we do not want them,” the harbormaster said. The town just completed an ambitious project to rebuild and expand the fish pier observation deck, which is necessary to keep sightseers safely out of the way of the fishermen and the wholesalers.
Muto said that the fishermen seeking to take part in the pilot program are willing to pay for a police detail officer to direct traffic and keep pedestrians safe. But the key, Muto told selectmen in their June 2 meeting, is to get the pilot program operational immediately.
Selectmen referred the request to the Aunt Lydia’s Cove committee for its recommendation. While the cove committee’s meetings have been suspended during the pandemic emergency, “we all agree that this would be a good idea,” committee Chairman Doug Feeney told the board on June 2.
The following week, selectmen held another discussion to reconsider referring the matter to the cove committee, after committee members raised concerns about potential financial conflicts of interest related to the proposal. Rather than referring the matter to the waterways committee for review, selectmen last week agreed to decide the matter.
Selectman Cory Metters said the town has spent considerable money at the fish pier expressly to separate visitors from the commercial fishing operation, and when visitors arrive in numbers shortly, “we have a huge conflict that’s going to come before us, probably in a couple of weeks.” The new fish pier observation deck is nearly complete, but remains closed because of state social distancing rules (see related story, page 12). Metters said he sympathizes with fishermen who are trying to recoup lost revenue because of the pandemic.
“We’re all trying to survive the summer,” he said.
Board member Peter Cocolis noted that parts of the fish pier complex are privately owned, and the town hasn’t notified abutters that it might be making a policy change that could greatly increase traffic.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said he opposed the idea, given the resources the town devoted to the observation deck expressly to help control congestion.
“This proposal, in light of that, seems to be a step backward,” he said.
Muto said he favors allowing the pilot program to take place before July 1 to avoid the most congested time of year. The sales could be limited to the afternoons, when most fishermen have completed their commercial offloads for the day, he said. “I think there’s a way to work through this.”
Speaking on June 9, Smith said it could be possible to allow a trial program through June 21, but not later. “If you go into July, you’re going to be in dogfish season,” he said. But selectmen should be aware that there will be opposition, including from some fishermen and abutters. If the program is approved, “we will not have gone through our normal process where we will have heard from all parties,” Smith noted.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he wants to support fishermen, but believes the proposal is rushed. Even if selectmen approved a short-term test of direct retail sales, “I don’t know what the experiment’s going to prove,” he said. It will be simply impossible for such an operation to happen during peak summer weeks, Dykens said.
While fishermen would have a short-lived economic boost during the pilot program, “this is not something I can support during the summer months,” Metters added.
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson urged selectmen to consider what traffic will be like in the lower parking lot if there is a line of cars with people seeking to buy fish crossing a single crosswalk bringing visitors to the observation deck.
“That’s just magnifying the safety nightmare that we’ve been trying to resolve now, two-plus, three-plus years,” he said.
With board chairman Shareen Davis recused, selectmen voted unanimously against supporting the trial program.