Commercial fishing on Cape Cod is heralded as one of our oldest traditions. More than 400 years old, the industry has its roots in Native American culture and in the livelihoods of our earliest settlers. However, the myriad struggles and challenges that our local fishermen have faced in recent years are well documented. With this venerable regional business often seen on the brink of collapse, how viable is the concept of a new generation of fishermen?
“There will always be fish,” says John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, “and it’s our job to help local fishermen catch them.” Here on Cape Cod, there are young people eagerly embarking on careers in commercial fishing despite the inherent risks and the uncertainty of the trade. Their reasons and backgrounds differ, but they all share an innate love of the sea and pride in harvesting its bounty.
Boat: F/V Molly May
Commercial Catch: Lobsters
Location: Sandwich Harbor
“I’m pretty positive that I always knew I’d be a fisherman,” says Dean Karoblis, who began lobstering with his father when he was just four or five years old. Managing a fishing business comes naturally to Karoblis, whose 35-foot vessel, Molly May, is harbored in Sandwich Marina. After years of learning the family trade from his dad, Karoblis started going on large offshore lobster boats, fishing about 18 trips each winter and gaining even more onboard experience.
Eventually, in the late 2000s, he had enough money to purchase a boat and lobster permit of his own. He continues to put in the long hours that he knew growing up. “I work nearly every single day,” says Karoblis. “There are probably about only six days all year that I don’t do something for lobstering—work on line, the boat, paperwork … it’s constant. And I’m a stickler about maintenance,” he adds. “I learned from my dad there is always something to sharpen, shine, wax or grind on a fishing boat.”
He likes being on the ocean and being his own boss. Much of his work anxiety comes from fluctuations in price and the federally mandated right whale protective closures in Cape Cod Bay that require lobster fishermen to remove traps from Feb. 1 through April 30 each year. The stress of getting 800 pots out and then back into the water in a shortened time period has caused him “to do things out of my comfort zone just to get ahead of the game,” he says. But Karoblis is encouraged that the South Shore Fisherman’s Association is working with the New England Aquarium to test out modified rope line designed to reduce whale entanglements and death, which could allow lobstering to coexist with marine mammal protections.
Married in 2014 and father to a 7-year-old stepson and 15-month-old daughter, Karoblis is hopeful for the future. “It seems like there are a lot of lobsters around and the biomass is big.” Plus, he knows he is making people happy with his catch. “Lobstering, it’s great,” he says. “It’s a celebration of food. Everyone should eat more lobster!”
Boat: F/V The Goody Hallet
Commercial Catch: Sea clams
Location: Runs his boat out of New Bedford and fishes in the Nantucket Shoals area
Max Nolan has been fishing since he was six years old, joining his father, Scott, sea clamming in Cape Cod Bay and even skipping school to go scallop fishing. He says that even as a small child, he just “kinda knew” he would grow up to be a commercial fisherman like his dad. Even after moving with his mother to Sweden for high school and working there for nine years, he sensed he would ultimately return to the Cape to pursue a life on the ocean. On one of his visits home from Sweden, he and his father talked it through and Max decided to join him full time. Five years ago, they worked together to retrofit an old dragger into a sea clam vessel called The Goody Hallet.
Now Nolan runs the boat for his father, and even on his days off, finds time to commercially fish for bluefin tuna and striped bass. “I like the fact that I can earn good money, that I can make my own schedule and that I get to work with my Dad,” says Nolan. He lived in Wellfleet, Brewster and Barnstable before settling in Eastham. A newlywed, Nolan is proud that he was able to buy a house with his fishing income.
There are challenges in his business, including the beating his equipment takes on the twice-weekly offshore fishing trips. “There’s gear breaking every trip, which equals a lot of expense,” he says. But he wouldn’t trade it for a different occupation and he hopes that a future son of his could follow in his footsteps. “Me and my dad have a really good relationship through fishing and I want that for my kids. It’s not every day a person can work with their father and have a good time together.”
Whether he shares that fortune depends on the future of surf clamming, but Nolan is prepared to adapt to any changes to keep fishing in the family.
Boat: F/V Carol Marie
Commercial Catch: Monkfish, skate, dogfish, cod and haddock
Unlike Max Nolan, Scott MacAllister didn’t come from a fishing family. In fact, his mother and father were apprehensive when he announced that he wanted to be a commercial fisherman. “My parents didn’t like it at all at first,” says MacAllister. “They really wanted me to go to college or join the Coast Guard.” But MacAllister’s many summers fishing with local Chatham fishermen sealed his fate.
“Once I got a taste of fishing, I just wanted to keep doing it,” he says. So after he graduated from high school, he took all of his savings and the money his grandmother left him for college and bought his own boat. He named his boat after her, Carol Marie, and feels that she would agree with his choice. “I think she left us that money to use however we wanted to in life and I figured this was a good thing to do with it.”
MacAllister enjoys working outside and using the mechanical knowledge he learned in school. He relishes not only the physical challenges of fishing, but the mental ones, too. “It’s fun trying to find the fish. Being your own boss, making your own plans.” MacAllister adds that the work is also stressful. When he first started, he and his brothers, Kevin and Paul, who join him on the boat each summer, really didn’t know what they were doing. He had a lot of onboard experience and the local gill net fishermen welcomed the young captain, but there was still a learning curve.
One challenge MacAllister faces is finding good help when his seasoned crew is running other boats. One of his best temporary crew members was a young woman who jumped on board for a couple of weeks last year. “She was a crabber out of Washington and she was fast. She had never gill netted before, but she gave everyone a run for their money.”
The prices of the fish he catches—monkfish, skate, dogfish, cod, haddock—are a little better now than when he started, and he says he will just “keep plugging away as long as they let us catch them.” What worries MacAllister the most is the possibility of going to a fishing history-based quota system, since the permit he owns has no significant history on it. But he is realistic: “There is nothing you can really do about it and this boat needs enough work to last the rest of my life, so I spend a lot of my time in the engine room. Luckily, it all came together pretty good.”