An old-school tale of fishermen's credit
Commercial fishermen often stop by to share their thoughts on everything from policy to prices, bureaucracy to boats, what’s working and what isn’t. We value the knowledge and the connection.
During COVID the “stopping by” part isn’t happening much, but there’s still sharing going on. For example, retired Captain Mark Simonitsch recently shared some advice wrapped in a tale, sent as a letter to CEO John Pappalardo. The story was so well told, it felt like old times resurrected. We hope you enjoy it as well.
A recent article about farmers’ access to credit reminded me of experiences with the evolution of institutional credit available to local fishermen. Maybe personal money experiences from other fishermen would be interesting to document as a part of the history of local fishing for the Fishermen’s Alliance to collect someday.
Our borrowing money stories are like grudges: never forgotten, even in old age. :)
Local fishermen bought their boats with cash savings. Some borrowed from their local buyer by giving notes well into the 1970s. If you borrowed from the local fish house you were obliged to sell your fish there. Looking back, the lack of credit was an unintended form of restriction on fleet expansion and a rein on overfishing.
Fifty years ago, we had many local men who wanted to fish, and knew how, but they had no money for a boat. We also had more seasonal workers like carpenters and others who had skiffs and wanted to jig for cod, go quahogging and bay scalloping. I never wondered where fishermen for the crew came from in those days -- out of cracks in the floor...
Around 1967-68 Cape Cod Bank & Trust loaned me money to purchase a radar for my 50-foot eastern rigged scalloper “Southern Cross.” Radars were coming into vogue, along with a sounder that displayed an image and produced a paper record. The days of sounding leads with convex wax-filled bottoms to find the right bottom were about at an end in 1970. I felt I could easily pay for the $2000 Voyager radar Jack Cook was selling in his Main St. shop with the extra days and time I would fish.
I had paid $6000 cash to buy a 30-year-old dragger outright. It had been tied up in a New Bedford shipyard. Its hull was planked with long leaf yellow pine on oak frames – both considered to be the premium wood for boats in those days
I was told the trap fishermen received money from Reliable Fish or Victory Seafood in Hyannis for spring money up to about 1960. The most meaningful question in February in those days was: “Well kid, how much do you need this year?" Later, as we prospered a bit, we began using our own savings to cover spring expenses before the fish arrived.
Around 1974, my trap company partner Fred, 55, and I, then 35, went to Chatham Trust at the Route 28 rotary for a spring loan. I recall the bank officers and board were all Chatham businessmen. Carrol Bearse, the bank president, welcomed us into his office and then turned us over to the loan officer, Helen Goodspeed. I guess the first sign of success was to get by Mr. Bearse. Helen knew us by our first names, but her greeting included the local term reserved for two or more fishermen: “What can I do for you boys today?”
From that meeting on we borrowed our startup trap money from the bank each spring, about $5000. Twenty years later I would need $20,000 for spring money expenses. The crew received a “dead horse” advance each week of $50 until the fish arrived around the first of May. The “dead horse” total was deducted from the first settlement of fish we caught.
In the fall of 1976 a group of us fishermen friends borrowed $25,000 from CCB&T to buy the 72-foot dragger “Silver Mink” to fish for a bonanza of sea scallops east of Chatham. Eight partners put up another $16,000. CCB&T told us it was the first time they, the largest commercial bank on Cape Cod, secured a mortgage with a fishing boat! I presume in Provincetown the local Seaman’s Bank was already lending to fishermen, but that technically is a savings bank. Of course, New Bedford banks had been lending money all along.
Farm Credit Bank money became available for member boats in a local fishing cooperative in the 1970s. A few Chatham fishermen took out letters of credit in case we needed money for an immediate engine replacement or other emergency. Later home equity loans came into vogue and were used to better access quick money. The home equity loan gave me relief, but also a lot of stress two years in a row when we caught almost no fish and I couldn’t pay off my 90-day spring start-up note; the house was on the line.
We were at CCB&T again for construction of a new aluminum trap boat in the winter of 1980. The interest rate went from 12 to 18 percent during the four months it took to build and launch the boat in time for the spring fish.
I bought the trap business from Fred Powell when he retired. He had incorporated his trap company. Our first arrangement was I could buy up to 49 percent of the stock, but I had to do it in 5 years. I purchased 49 percent the first year to maximize my earnings. I think I came up with $24,000 as I had sold my dragger and had some savings. Later I bought the fish pier at Stage Harbor from Fred.
In the winter before I bought into the trap company I had money from selling my dragger in the bank. Aware of my boat sale, John Ventola, a friend and Old Harbor Fish Company owner, asked to borrow $10,000 for a couple of weeks to finish a spec house he was building. I loaned him the money immediately, maybe with a handshake, maybe not. When he paid me back he told me to come to his fish market Friday evening after he closed. From the cash register drawer in the market he gave me two payments in two weeks. With the second $5,000 I asked him, “What about interest?” He nearly died that he would have to pay me interest for a personal loan. With grief he groaned, “How much?”
In the Old Harbor Fish Company office, where Mildred Nickerson (Crayton Nick’s wife) paid out fish settlements to captains, an idle recording barometer was stored on a high shelf. I told John I would take the barometer as interest for my loan. He jumped for joy. The barometer was gathering dust. He almost ran into the office to give it to me.
From 1990 to 2005 I was on the board of directors of Coastal Community Capital in Hyannis, a lender set up and overseen by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. It was and is a great place. CCC loaned to small businesses and then got into loaning to local fishermen in a serious way. Coastal Capital remains active to this day.
There is more of course, but I think I have sketched out some details of the credit market in the good old days. As my father would often state about those “good old days,” from his time growing up on my grandfather’s ranch in North Dakota, “The good old days, mostly old and not so good.”
But in the good old days, we had fish to catch.
A lot of old fishermen have money stories.