Longtime Nantucket captain Pete Kaizer is leading the charge to save our fishery.
To hear Nantucket captain Pete Kaizer talk about the island’s inshore fishery is to get a history lesson that strays at times into an angry rant and genuine fear for the future. The thick schools of cod Kaizer remembers just off Nantucket’s eastern shore — so thick he could simply use a gaff to catch free swimming cod — are all gone. The fall bass runs have declined, he says, and now even the baitfish, including the squid and herring that serve as forage food for larger species, are disappearing. “I’ve fished up and down this coast, and what’s happening here now? It’s textbook of how to destroy an inshore habitat,” Kaizer says aboard his boat, the Althea K, on an early summer evening in June. “A lot of these fisheries are at a tipping point where they’re probably not going to come back.”
Kaizer, a former commercial fisherman turned charter boat captain, has worked on the waters around Nantucket for more than four decades. In recent years, he’s watched with growing alarm as the spawning herring and squid populations off Cape Cod and the Islands have been victimized by ruthlessly efficient fishing gear wielded by commercial draggers that have moved closer and closer to our inshore areas. For Kaizer, a siren was going off. “I thought, ‘we’re going to have no forage food at all’,” he says. “Our fisheries will be done. And it’s happening in broad daylight. You think there’s all these watchdog groups, but there aren’t.”
And so Kaizer stepped into that role himself. Over the past year he’s emerged as a powerful advocate for the protection of Nantucket’s near-coastal ecosystem and has mobilized his fellow fishermen, island residents, and lawmakers to take action.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” says Dr. Sarah Oktay, the managing director of the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station who holds a Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. “We don’t always agree on everything, but I’ve listened to him a lot on these fisheries issues. I’ ve been really impressed with what he’s doing. It’s going to make a difference.”
Last winter, Kaizer spearheaded an effort to pressure the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to rescind a new amendment that allowed small-mesh trawling for squid in the state waters south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard from June 10th through the close of the commercial fluke fishery. The amendment immediately put a huge amount of pressure on the squid population, Kaizer says. He blames the indiscriminate nature of the small mesh nets used by mobile gear fishermen for significant collateral damage to species like striped bass and fluke that use squid as forage. “It was bulls–t,” he says. “It was sickening. Absolutely sickening.”
Unbeknownst to Kaizer, the situation had been building since 2011, when a couple of commercial draggers got tipped off about the rich area southwest of Nantucket and the Vineyard. Larger federally permitted boats caught wind of it too, and started fishing right up to three-mile boundary that marks the edge of state waters and sometimes beyond, an infraction of the regulations governing the area. But instead of cracking down on the federal boats, Kaizer says, the DMF threw a bone to the state’s commercial draggers and started issuing letters of authorization (LOAs) that allowed them to do the same. “They were just trying to do the guys a favor, which is fine, except for the fact that they didn’t look for any local knowledge,” Kaizer says.
By 2014, the DMF was flooded with requests for LOAs and decided to amend its regulations in order to grant any boat with a coastal access permit, or CAP, access to the inshore state waters south of the islands after June 9th. The action allowed for the potential of more than one hundred draggers to move into the area for the summer. And many did, trawling just off Nantucket by day and, Kaizer alleges, illegally at night. All of this was happening without anyone on the islands so much as raising an eyebrow. “The people of Nantucket didn’t have a clue. I didn’t have a clue,” Kaizer says.
The impact came swiftly. Last summer, the squid around Nantucket largely disappeared. In the evenings, the glowing lights of the draggers in the distance off Madaket offered Kaizer his first clue as to what was really happening. “It looked like a city at night,” he says. “Everyone was coming in.” By the end of July, Kaizer had discovered the amendment made by the DMF, and so began his campaign to get it rescinded.
He cancelled two charter boat trips to attend a state Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in Boston where he demanded emergency action be taken. He enlisted the help of the Nantucket selectmen as well as State Representative Tim Madden, who lives on Nantucket, to lobby then DMF director Paul Diodati. With Kaizer leading the charge, the campaign over the fall and winter was highlighted by letter writing, standing room only public hearings across the Cape and Islands, as well as an online petition to the DMF that was signed by more than 3,500 people. By March, the unlikely coup was complete as the Marine Fisheries Commission voted 4–2 to rescind CMR 8:07:1B2, the formal name of the amendment.
“I’ve known Pete for a long time and he’s passionate, and it’s that type of passion that makes you want to pay attention and be supportive,” Rep. Tim Madden says. “He’s been a tremendous advocate and brought things to the surface that otherwise would have slipped through.”
Kaizer’s victory lap, if there even was one, was short-lived. “I said, ‘It’s approved. Okay, now what’?” he says. Kaizer has already moved on to the next big thing: a pro-posal for a gear-based restriction on small mesh mobile gear draggers operating in the herring management areas surrounding Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The restriction would extend twelve miles offshore to the territorial waters boundary. It is intended to protect spawning sea herring, river herring and squid by keeping pair trawlers (when two draggers tow one large net together) and larger otter trawlers from Maine and elsewhere out of the inshore areas of the Cape and Islands.
“In recent years there have been as many as five sets of pair trawlers working these inshore waters — it looked like Alaska!” Kaizer says. Concerns over the efficiency of pair trawling have led other countries, including the United Kingdom, to impose bans in some fisheries. “Right now we have zero herring coming down here,” Kaizer says. “When you tow a small mesh net that is the size of a football field in close proximity to the bottom, you get massive, irreversible damage to the marine environment and unfathomable amounts of bycatch (fish caught unintentionally while targeting other species). It’s inherent in the gear type. We can’t allow these draggers to keep beating up this area.”
Of course, as a charter boat captain, Kaizer’s livelihood depends on a healthy inshore ecosystem that can sustain the fish his customers want to catch. He’s aware of how his efforts might be perceived by commercial draggers, some of whom he counts among his friends. “For thirty years I went commercial tuna fishing and diving for bay scallops. We’re not against commercial fishing, but we are against the collateral damage that the gear types can cause,” he says.
Kaizer was recently appointed to the Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Advisory Panel of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and was named the Fisheries Representative for the Nantucket County Commissioners. He hopes the new roles will give his advocacy even greater weight as he pursues the gear-based restriction in the months ahead. If you had told him twenty years ago that he had a future as a fish- eries watchdog, Kaizer would never have believed you. All of his efforts today, he says, are about protecting his livelihood, but also preserving something that makes Nantucket special and keeps people coming back to the island. “This effort is for the future generations and sustainable fisheries,” he says. “If you don’t take care of it, it can all go away.”