ORLEANS – Captain John Mead has been fishing the waters off Rock Harbor for almost 50 years, all aboard the same boat. He began working for his uncle as a mate aboard the Flying Mist in 1975, and has been captaining the boat full time since 2004.
Charter fishing is a tradition that goes back generations in Mead's family, and it's one he hopes to keep alive. But with a local charter fleet that's dealing with rising costs, declining reservations and a reduction in membership, he admits he's not optimistic.
"It's just sad, because I'm seeing the harbor dying," said Mead, an Eastham resident. "Pretty soon it's just going to be people who are wealthy enough to have their boats there. I think the charter fleet as a whole is going to go, and that's sad. It's a fantastic option for tourists."
When Hap Farrell, captain of the Stunmai II, first joined the charter fleet in 1980, there were 20 boats. Today there are 11, he said. Several boats have had to increase their rates to offset the increased cost of fuel and other expenses, which he said has in turn led to fewer reservations. He said another charter boat captain in the fleet told him that only one in five people inquiring about a reservation this season came through and paid for a trip.
Meanwhile, another fleet member opted out of fishing this season altogether, Farrell said.
"Because of the price of fuel, it's not profitable for him to go fishing," he said. "It's profitable for him to stay in his landscaping job. He makes more money in the course of a day landscaping than he would on a four-hour trip."
Now fleet members are worried that a plan by the select board to implement paid parking at the harbor will only further aggravate the problems facing the fleet. The harbor remains one of the few places in town offering free access to the water. If visitors have to pay, there's concern some may not come at all.
"It's a cool little place for people to come with their lunch," Mead said of the harbor. "They have their lunch and they're gone. They're not going to pay  bucks to have their lunch. It's ridiculous."
"I think it's the idea of it," Steve Peters, who captains the charter boat Triton, said of his objection to the paid parking proposal. "My kids and grandkids have always gone there. It's always been this free space. I don't know why they want to muck it up."
Article 14 on the warrant for the Oct. 17 special town meeting seeks to adopt a paid parking program for the harbor. Non-residents would use a smartphone app to pay the $15 parking fee. The app would also be used by parking monitors at the harbor to track who has and hasn't paid to park.
Residents and visitors who have seasonal or weekly beach stickers would not be subject to the fee, Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said. Nor would people stopping in just to make reservations for a charter trip, she said.
The town also plans to end paid parking each day in time to allow people to visit the harbor to watch the sunset free of charge.
"This is really designed for the daily users who are unaffiliated with Orleans," she said.
But others in the fleet are less concerned about how the proposal will affect their bottom line than they are about the potential loss of a free community asset.
"It's not going to do anything to us, I don't think," Peters said. "It's just 'What for?'"
Farrell added that visitors already sink plenty of money into the community each season by supporting local businesses.
"Maybe we should let these people just come into town, because they're going to stop and buy ice cream cones and buy lunch," he said. "They're going to help the economy in town."
Farrell also raised concern that the app, through which users would have to link a credit card to pay the parking fee, will open users up to cyber fraud. He also noted that some visitors to Rock Harbor may not have or know how to use a smartphone.
Failure to pay the fee would result in a $50 fine, but Town Administrator John Kelly said other options would be made available beyond using the app for people to pay the fee instead of the fine. Reed called this a "compassionate" approach to responding to people who might have problems using the app.
"That isn't a government that's out to get you," she said. "That's not our point here. The point is to begin to understand that we all pay as you go. We all use resources that we want to be mindful of."
As a free lot, maintenance and operation of the harbor is subsidized with taxpayer dollars, Reed said. The goal behind the paid parking is to bring in revenue to the harbor's enterprise fund to offset that expense to taxpayers.
Bringing in revenue will be even more critical as the town continues to plan for a long-term rebuild of the harbor that Reed said will improve public viewing, make it easier for vessels to offload cargo and better protect the area from environmental impacts.
The town is also under more pressure from the state Department of Environmental Protection to improve water quality in the Pleasant Bay estuary, and Reed said those efforts also need to be funded.
"As stewards, we have to think about 'How are we caring for this,'" she said.
Charging a fee for non-residential, non-stickered use of the harbor is the most reasonable way to go, Reed said. But not everyone agrees.
"I know what they're trying to do and all, it just seems like it's going to make it more complicated," Peters said. "If they need more money, just increase the parking down at Nauset Beach or something."
Farrell said while he's spoken to Kelly about the proposal, many questions still remain unanswered. Will people who briefly visit the harbor to walk be charged? Will visitors with boat trailers be charged for one parking space or two?
"The system seemed to be very convoluted," Farrell said. "There's too many things where it was 'Oh, we'll take care of this' or 'We'll make room for that.' But it doesn't get into explanations about how they're going to do it."
The specifics of how paid parking will work at the harbor haven't been ironed out, and Reed said they won't be before town meeting. If the article passes next month, town officials will set about working out the particulars of the plan, she said.
"I think the idea is you don't bother to work out the details unless the public buys into what we want done," she said.
There will be opportunities for residents to ask questions about the proposal ahead of the Oct. 17 session, Reed said. The select board will have a public hearing in the coming weeks where residents can raise questions about and comment on the town meeting articles. Opportunities may also be available to ask questions through a special town meeting presentation hosted by the Orleans Citizens Forum on Sept. 29, she said.
Fleet members meanwhile say they plan to be in attendance at the special town meeting to weigh in on the proposed parking plan.
"We're going to speak to the fact that we're shutting down the last of what people came to the Cape for," Farrell said.
For Mead, the Rock Harbor proposal is just another example of how residents and visitors are increasingly being priced out of the area. He said he's watched over the years as taxes on residents have increased while housing, fuel and other costs continue to rise.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm getting to the point where I really don't want to live here anymore."
Whatever happens with parking at the harbor, Reed assured that the fleet won't be left out of the conversation.
"We want to support them," she said. "We value the charter fishing fleet. It's an attraction, it's an occupation. We're going to make sure they are considered, and we will address their questions."
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