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Cape Cod Chronicle by Tim Wood

CHATHAM --- Today, it’s no longer enough for a fishermen to be a skilled mariner who can locate and haul in a day’s catch. A fisherman also has to have the instincts and business acumen of an entrepreneur to navigate the regulatory shoals that define the modern commercial fishing industry.

Anew program aims to teach those skills to local fishermen so they can learn how to create a business plan, attract financing and purchase much-prized quotas so that they can not just survive, but also grow their business.

Last Friday at the town’s fish pier, Cape and Islands Senator Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, and Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Community Development Partnership, announced a $185,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund the program. The CDP will work with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’sAssociation and the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, which currently buys fishing quotas and leases them at a discount to fishermen, to help fishermen buy their own quotas.

“This is really taking the concept of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust and bringing it to the next step, where fishermen themselves own their own quotas,” said Paul Parker, the trust’s director.

Details of the program are still being worked out. “We’re in the scoping and thinking and brainstorming stage,” Parker said. But the CDP has already advertised a new position to develop a program to help fishermen attract financing so they can buy quotas, said Bridgewater. She expects the position will be filled within a month and the program could be up and running with in a year, she said.

“Because we’ve been involved in micro financing for a long time, we have the contacts and relationships,” she said. “But this is more targeted than in the past.”

A portion of the grant will be used for a revolving loan fund to help fishermen purchase quotas. Revolving funds are used in other ports, including Gloucester and New Bedford, but mostly to help fishermen finance equipment, said Parker. Today the biggest asset of a commercial fishing operation is its catch share, or quota, but it’s something conventional financial institutions like banks have a hard time grasping, he said. The program will help fishermen learn how to better communicate those details through business planning and technical assistance.

The program will help people like scalloper James Bergstrom, who currently leases his fishing quota. For a fishermen to secure his own quota is a struggle “straight uphill,” he said.

“The amount of investment is so gigantic. You have to be an organized business person who can raise capital,” he said. Scallopers now break down into two groups: those who were organized and “got there first” to secure quotas early in the process, and “people like me,” said Bergstrom, “who play catch up.”

Wolf said the program “bodes well for the future of fishing” because it seeks to empower fishermen. Without a way for small-boat fishermen --- who comprise the majority of the Cape’s fishing fleet, and all of Chatham’s approximately 75 commercial vessels --- to learn the ins and outs of financing and raising capital, there’s a danger that they will get squeezed out of the market, he said.

“We talk about small businesses on Cape Cod, and a maritime economy. Fishing is so much a part of that,” he said. Sustainability and predictability are two of the most important elements a small business needs, added Wolf, the founder and president of Cape Air.

“We have to come up with a model to create predictability for the numbers, for cash flow,” he said. “That is probably the biggest challenge now in this tightly regulated market.”

Helping fishermen increase their ownership share in the catch share system is a way to protect the long-term viability of the local fishing industry, Bridgewater said. The CDP, an Eastham-based non-profit organization that serves the eight towns on the lower Cape, has been providing technical assistance to fishermen, and the new program will “deepen that,” she said. One of the tasks of the new position will be to reach out to potential sources of financing, including local banks, the U.S. Department ofAgriculture and Massachusetts state agencies.

Quotas leased through the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust help fishermen like Tye Vecchione make their businesses work. Although he owns some quota, about 20 percent of the time he spends on the water is due to additional share he leases at a discount rate. On the open market, it would cost about four times as much, he said.

“I wouldn’t be feasible” to lease without the discount, he said.

Although the quota system has its problems, it provides more stability than the previous system of regulating days at sea, said Parker. But it is still relatively new, and the impact on local fishing communities is uncertain. It’s created a system in which isn’t not about where you fish or how good a fishermen you are, but how skilled you are at securing financing and capital.

“That’s a new thing,” he said.

“Whether I can catch scallops well is not the most important thing,” agreed Bergstrom. “Now I have to be good at business or I’m out.”

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