Once, as they were in so many places, the codfish that formed the economic basis for the early colonies were plentiful all around Martha’s Vineyard.
“The migrating cod would come between the Vineyard and Nantucket, all the way to Buzzards Bay,” said Tom Osmers of West Tisbury, a lifelong resident of the Vineyard and a fisherman since he was a boy.
“That river of migratory cod is gone. We had local cod, too — that stayed in the bays. When I was a boy, we’d go out between East Chop and West Chop lighthouses, set between 400 and 600 hooks and catch lots of codfish. Not any more.”
The cod have virtually disappeared, other stocks have dwindled and fisheries management rules have even barred local fishermen from traditional smaller fisheries they once depended on to fill gaps between the larger ones.
Tired of fighting with regulators, and although fearful the quest may be quixotic, a small but growing group of Vineyard residents are attempting to launch a program to restore the local “groundskeeper” cod, by raising juveniles for release.
He doesn’t want the credit, but Osmers did start the effort.
“The plan grew out of not knowing what to do next,” said Osmers. He watched while a government program that encouraged the landing of “underutilized species” brought large gillnet vessels to the Vineyard to catch dogfish.
“When they ran out of dogfish, they’d catch up the cod. It was the end of 1991 and the end of us,” Osmers said. “That was the last year we got any appreciable amount of cod here.” In March of 2003, he testified to the New England Fishery Management Council’s advisory committee and “made a spiel for hand-operated tub trawls.”
“In April, I went to a council meeting in Mystic, Connecticut and made a presentation about the fact that the Vineyard has a 350-year history of codfish export. We were fishing and exporting cod under the Duke of York, before the Vineyard was even part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”
Enroute the meeting, he had a revelation. “I knew I was fighting for jobs that no longer exist, with people who don’t care if we exist.”
Around the same time, the Martha’s Vineyard Times carried a story about students in Oak Bluffs raising trout. “I thought, why can’t we raise up a few cod and let them go in the early spring before the predators arrive?”
Talks with like-minded Vineyard residents led to a group of 11 people, including eight island fishermen and two scientists, traveling to the University of New Hampshire, where researcher Rich Langan, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center, explained the university’s codfish and mussel culture research programs.
“We found out they get their cod from Great Bay Aquaculture,” so the group continued on to Newington to tour the cod hatchery facility, where directors George Nardi and Chris Duffy use hand-lined wild cod for spawning. A two- to three-inch fish costs $1, while a three- to five-inch fish costs $2.
The eleven interested in the Vineyard Cod Restoration Project include two Aquinnah Wampanoag fishermen, Rick Carney of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish group and Scott Lindell, director of the Scientific Aquaculture Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole. The Wampanoags at Aquinnah already operate a shellfish hatchery and a scallop pond.
“The water quality on the Vineyard is still good enough,” to grow out the tiny cod in island ponds, said Osmers. Island water quality is so much better than the mainland that the Vineyard is “the last refuge of the blue-eyed scallop.”
“China began its scallop aquaculture with island scallops,” said Osmers. “The broodstock on the Cape is gone and they can’t seem to site a hatchery. The scallops are worth $18 a pound now. We still have them, but we’re down to between 3,000 and 5,000 bushels per season.”
Besides good water quality, island ponds still have brine shrimp and other forage foods such as tiny mussels Osmers believes will sustain life for tiny cod.
“We learned it is feasible to buy the cod fry at fingerling size, then grow them out in net pens, until they reach about eight inches,” said musician Michele Jones, one of those active in the restoration project. Jones divides her time between Owls Head, Maine, and the Vineyard.
Her daughter, Nina Violet, and another Vineyard musician, Willie Mason, will be featured in one of several events in the planning stages as fundraisers for the project. Jones said islanders have taken to calling Osmers “The Codfather” and that one of the fundraisers may be a “Codfather’s Ball.”
The idea of starting seafood from scratch isn’t new. The island once had a lobster hatchery, closed, Osmers recalls, when the state declared the lobster fishery “rebuilt.”
“It’s been in collapse ever since,” he said.
Organizers would like to see the fledgling project start in the fall, when the water temperatures are good for cod, which are being hatched and farmed commercially in several countries. The group’s intent is to keep fish at low density to ensure maximum quality, reduce any potential problems and encourage survival. If it works, Osmers envisions a similar project later to help restore black-backed flounder.
Lindell is working on a sea bass project at MBL, using round “hemisphere” tanks as pens, trying to get tiny fish to respond to stimuli that will train them to return to the same area to feed. “It could be the ocean version of free range animals,” said Osmers. He sees a possible application for the Vineyard cod project.
Real estate values on this prized summer getaway island off Cape Cod have been skyrocketing during the past 20 years, and its New England charm has always attracted wealthy summer residents and visiting celebrities, including the likes of former president Bill Clinton, talk show host David Letterman, singer Carly Simon and TV news legend Walter Cronkite.
Despite the land’s value, there are plenty of spaces to consider growing cod, said Osmers. Maybe the abandoned fish pier, closed by its owner when Homeland Security decided the island’s honor system for fishermen wasn’t good enough to protect it from terrorists.
“We used to go there and pick up ice or bait, leave our fish, and leave a note saying what we took or left,” said Osmers. “It worked just fine. Homeland Security came and took a look and said, `No, no, no.’ They wanted the owner to install a $150,000 security system. He closed the fish pier.”
No one blames the owner for closing the pier under the circumstances, but now the embattled small-boat fishermen of the Vineyard must scramble to find ice or bait. Fortunately, a couple of young entrepreneurs bought and operate a “buy boat” that takes Menemsha fish to the mainland now.
As a teenager, Osmers fished for striped bass from the beach using a hand-line. “I scorned people who used boats. What did they need them for? I was catching plenty of fish without one.”
After the cod vanished, the sea clam fishery that once supplied islanders with bait was parceled out on a quota basis to fishermen who brought large boats from New Jersey while islanders were barred from taking the clams from their own shore. He foresees the scallop fishery going the same way, then expects finfish will be next.
He’s been a sword fisherman, still goes after lobster, and now fishes for conch, or whelk, using a couple of hundred traps. His vessel is a 1970 Repco, one of the early all-fiberglass boats based on a Stonington lobster boat design.
In his spare time, he moves houses. New residents sometimes buy old houses but find them inadequate to their needs, so they sell them and have them moved away. In fact, that’s how Osmers acquired his own house back in the `80s.
Osmers is in his fifties but the changes he has seen in island fisheries are so profound that 16 years ago he felt it was necessary to document what was left.
Near the end of the 1991 season, he drove around Menemsha, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs with a video recorder to capture the remnants of the traditional hand-line fishery.
“Two months ago, I showed the video to the oldest maritime club on the island, the Barnacle Club,” said Osmers. “They gave me a donation to edit the movie and promote the cause.” His lobbying efforts did convince the council’s advisory committee to grandfather the hand-operated tub trawl fishery.
Cod is a “foundational fish,” said Osmers. “When you rebuild a house, you look at the foundation. Cod was the foundation of the New England economy. It’s not like the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was scarce to start with. Cod were plentiful. Look at the name of the Cape — Cape Cod.
“Cod is a symbol. But all we have left to fight with is the symbols. We haven’t figured out how to use all these symbolic implements yet,” said Osmers. “It might be a symbolic gesture, or it just might work.”