The offshore breeze dulls the scorching sun as Nick Muto goes to work on the Chatham Fish Pier. He hoists baited traps onto the deck of his lobster boat, threading knots and stacking cages in preparation for a short trip to set the traps off the coast.
Amidst the occupational hazards and headlines that predict the demise of New England’s groundfishing industry, Muto has seemingly done the impossible: He’s making a decent living as a fisherman on Cape Cod in the 21st century. “It’s doom and gloom for some guys who have their backs up against a wall,” Muto says. “But for those guys who are willing to change and willing to expand into new things, there are a lot of opportunities around.”
Muto’s career on the water sprang from inauspicious circumstances. In early 2001, after being kicked out of college, he was living with his parents in Orleans and needed work. He parlayed a few trips on a dragger into a gig cleaning lobster pots. Now Muto—who eventually finished his degree—spends his winters gillnetting aboard the Lori B, his springs working the fish weirs off of Chatham, and his summers hauling in lobsters on the Lost, the boat he’s owned for five summers.
These days, restrictive quotas and stocks slow to rebound have made groundfishing a financially risky enterprise. For fishermen, continuing to work on the water means broadening consumers’ palates beyond cod and haddock to encompass skates, conch and the other abundant species that are being hauled into Chatham. As part of the effort, the newly re-christened Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance hosts Meet the Fleet events, where local fishermen like Muto—who serves as chairman of the Alliance’s board—talk about a chosen seasonal fish, and a local chef prepares the fish for consumption.
Earning a living also means adapting in fallow times. Last year, after a dip in the price of lobster, Muto and Mark Sylvester founded Backside Bakes, a full-service clambake company catering to special events and functions. “If I go there and do the clambake for you, I know the guy who dug your steamers, I know where the mussels came from, I caught your lobsters—and it gives me a chance to tell a little bit of my story,” Muto says.
The era of catching cod 10 months a year and spending all the profits during the other two are over, Muto says: Today, the same fisherman might have to catch scallops, lobsters, striped bass and dogfish. “You might have to work a little harder, but you can still make a year out of it.”
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