Mariners Sound Out On Draft Waterways Bylaw

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Waterways , Commercial fishing and shellfishing

Although revisions to several of the town's waterways regulations cover a wide range of topics, rules governing moorings have been the most controversial. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — The next version of the waterways bylaw needs to address the shortage of moorings in town, while protecting the interests of commercial fishermen. That was the message the waterways advisory committee received in a public hearing last Thursday.

The committee is revising Chapter 265 of the town bylaw, which regulates everything from abandoned vessels to waterskiing. But most of the bylaw, and most of the discussion, is about the town’s management of mooring spaces.

The bylaw offers special privileges for commercial fishermen, and the draft seeks to define commercial fishermen, in part, as those who can prove that they landed fish on at least 75 days of each year.

Luther Bates, a commercial fisherman who operates a 32-foot longliner from the fish pier, said he landed 200,000 pounds of fish last year and 250,000 pounds the previous year, “and I do not qualify as a commercial fishing person under these criteria.” This has been a particularly bad year for the species Bates targets and he cannot show 75 days worth of landing slips, he told the committee. He was also sidelined for almost two months by an engine malfunction.

“As you know, fishing is cyclical,” he said. The volume of landings changes year to year, as does the value, and the number of fishing trips required to meet fishing quotas. A commercial fisherman might be excluded by the rule because of a year-long illness or cancer treatment, Bates said. Likewise, a tuna fisherman who makes trips for 80 days and only lands 40 fish wouldn’t qualify, “even though he’s putting more time at sea than many people,” he said.

Bates, who is also chairman of the town’s economic development committee, warned against rules that discourage people from working on the water.

“I think we should be supporting everybody who uses the water as a means to support their family, especially since this is an industry where younger families can be supported, and those are the people that we’re trying to support,” he said.

Aunt Lydia’s Cove committee Chair Doug Feeney also took issue with the definition of commercial fishing. While some fishermen turn to shellfishing when fin fishing is bad, they don’t all do so, he said.

“You just took out the whole entire commercial fishing fleet with this rule,” Feeney said. “When we can’t go fishing, such as last year because of sharks or bad weather, then we’re banging nails or building boats,” he said.

Fisherman Ernie Eldredge agreed, saying the conservation restrictions put on various fish species result in quota or days-at-sea limits. “That puts an awful burden on people trying to get 75 days in of landing slips,” he said.

Bates proposed a more flexible system that requires commercial fishermen to meet some of a list of different criteria and to do so over a certain number of years.

For his part, fisherman Darren Saletta said he thinks the regulation should be redrawn “from the ground up” to better support the working waterfront.

“It’s well known that working class folks are having a hard time remaining in Chatham and making a living,” he said.

Bates also asked the committee to consider broadening opportunities for former commercial fishermen who still have boats “that need to continue to provide income.” One former commercial fisherman now offers charter tours for birdwatchers and uses his boat daily.

“That person should be entitled to some sort of standing,” he said. Likewise, fishermen who use their boats and expertise to support aquaculture, marine research or wind farms should be included, he said. The bylaw should be changed to offer protections not just to fishermen but for others who use the water as a source of income, Bates said. “We don’t want to create a barrier to retaining these boats in the harbor” or keeping their owners in town, he said.

With a goal of increasing opportunities for people to obtain moorings, the draft bylaw proposes changes to the way the town identifies moorings that are not actively in use and can be assigned to new permit holders. The rule proposes that, if a permit holder no longer has the vessel on the permit, the holder has two years to get a replacement vessel on the mooring.

Some favor a plan that would require permit holders to use their moorings for 30 consecutive days over those two years, otherwise the permit is forfeited. Summer resident George Myers said the change is fair, “especially to the 1,400 people waiting for a mooring, sometimes for more than a decade.” But given the difficulty of policing such a rule, Myers proposed having permit holders simply certify that they have used their moorings at some time during the previous year, with a risk of revocation if they don’t use the mooring in two years.

Resident Rick Leavitt echoed Myers’ concerns, saying the bylaw revision is an improvement, but “fails to address the problem of greatest concern to Chatham residents: the years- and decades-long wait for a mooring.” The bylaw should include a statement indicating that the town’s policy is to minimize the number of people on the waiting lists for moorings. If “use-it-or-lose-it” mooring policies aren’t practical to enforce, Leavitt said, “then I suggest that you recommend that the harbormaster and select board adopt a policy of putting out more moorings,” he said. Adding 1,000 more mooring spaces over the next five years would ease the problem and boost the economy, Leavitt said.

“That is the most fair and equitable solution to a lingering problem of growing concern to residents,” he said.

The waterways committee voted to continue the public hearing at its next meeting, which happens today (Jan. 20) at 4 p.m., when it will discuss the suggestions from the public.

“These are very good comments,” committee Chair Dick Hosmer told the meeting. “These will be part of our discussion.”