When Nick Muto talks to the older guys on the docks of Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod’s outer edge, they often tell stories about an era when “all you needed was a boat and gear to make a living” as a commercial fisherman.
“They would catch as much as they could, as fast as they could, and go home with money in their pocket,” he says.
But for 35-year-old Nick, who broke into the industry in 2001 as a ground fisherman and lobsterman, the game has changed.
As the federal and state government has looked for ways to preserve this industry and ecosystem, “it can feel like you’re throwing $100,000 at a question mark.”
It’s a question that looms large for fishing communities across the country: How do you make fishing as a profession sustainable, accessible—and ultimately profitable—for the next generation?
Catch Together, founded by Massachusetts native Paul Parker, believes it may have found the answer.
With support from the Walton Family Foundation, Catch Together is building a nationwide network of community permit banks that provide low interest loans so fishermen can lease and eventually buy access to a fishery.
Paul, originally a fisherman himself, founded the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust in 2007, an offshoot of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance and the precursor to this national effort.
“I remember when I was younger—when fisheries conservation as a concept was taking off—guys would tell stories of how things used to be better, how they used to catch more fish closer to home—how much happier they were,” says Paul. “But they also recognized there was a problem, and that the solution started with them as stewards of the ecosystem.”
Catch Together works with local partnering organizations to make loans to young fishermen looking to enter an industry that has become more sustainable and more complicated.
“In a business that once relied solely on hard work, you now need to supplement that with fiscal expertise, data management, an understanding of the regulations and access to capital,” says Paul.
So Catch Together not only makes loans, it also trains its partners in business education, marketing best practices and regular check-ins to make sure fishermen are meeting goals.
“The trust helps shoulder some of that risk and debt,” says Nick, who now serves as chairman of the board of the alliance, which runs the trust.
“Whereas the older guys were basically operating on a wing and a prayer, we are able to make our business bankable—we can stay in business, period.”
Nick believes the new system is keeping access to the Cape Cod fishery in the hands of local fishermen, preserving opportunity and a way of life that has for so long emblemized this spit of sand in the North Atlantic.
Catch Together’s influence has extended to partners in the Gulf of Mexico, and as far away as Sitka, Alaska, one of the top-10 fishing ports in the country.
Thirty-three-year-old fisherwoman Tracy Sylvester is raising her family in this Alaskan panhandle community, known for its prolific salmon, halibut and black cod fisheries.
She has also been the first point-of-contact for over 100 local fishermen in her work as a coordinator of the Local Fish Fund, a partnering organization of Catch Together.
Tracy has witnessed firsthand the “greying of the fleet,” with older, established fishermen controlling much of the state’s expensive and hard-to-come-by quota.
“The quotas have been great because they create accountability and safety,” says Tracy. “But it’s our parents who own this quota and younger people just can’t afford to buy in.”
Through Catch Together loans, the Local Fish Fund is offering a less risky alternative to state-issued loans. Fish, as an asset, can be hard to borrow on, so these traditional loans require big-time collateral, says Tracy.
This new loan serves as an “onramp to opportunity,” lifting up young fishermen like herself and sustaining a way of life.
Through the fund, Tracy is also helping fishermen navigate a changing market.
“My generation is all about knowing where your food comes from,” says Tracy.
Quotas help fishermen diversify their offerings, be more organized with their fishing plans and know in advance what they can sell. Tracy likens this work to dairy farmers, who “can’t just raise cows, but now need a specialty cheese.”
Back on the East Coast, Nick expresses the same sentiment, with consumers and restaurants searching for local, sustainable and “boutique” product.
“In being forced to adapt,” says Nick, “it’s also allowed me to diversify and build a more predictable business.”
Programs like Catch Together are helping to align conservation and business interests across the country, allowing younger fishermen access to a stable business platform and strong returns, while protecting the ecosystem.
For communities across the country, Paul hopes that loans through Catch Together become a durable and self-supporting endeavor, elevating a new generation of leaders.
The loan program also offers an adaptable blueprint for fisheries from Indonesia to Chile, building a brighter future for fishing communities worldwide.
“When I moved to Cape Cod, all the fishermen talked about how they used to be the business center, the most respected people in their communities, and we hope to get back to that.”