A father and son team work together to improve lobster fishery
By Doreen Leggett
When Sean Leach graduated from Suffolk University with a degree in accounting he had a few job offers right away.
But since he had been lobstering from the age of eight or so, and his dad needed some help running the boat, he said he’d do a summer.
Come fall, the firm he hoped to work for called and offered him the job he wanted --- but the answer changed.
“I was pretty happy doing what I was doing,” Sean said. “I didn’t want to work for anyone again.”
That was almost a decade ago and he hasn’t regretted his decision. His father, Mark, has been pleased as well.
Mark now lets his son run the family boats, the Sea Holly and Sea Holly III (named after Sean minus the “n” and his older sister Holly). That frees him up to operate a wholesale business that markets his son’s lobsters, along with lobsters from three other local boats, to the highest bidder.
“The best thing that allowed me to do this was my son getting into the business,” Mark said with a smile.
When Sean, now 30, was younger he would go out on his dad’s boat, stand at the table on deck, and band lobsters. He enjoyed being outside and wanted to help.
His father had been a lobsterman for decades, but the elder Leach didn’t start his fishing career that way.
“I bought a codfish boat, which was the cheapest way to get into lobstering and that’s how I did it,” Mark remembers.
He stayed with groundfishing, using hooks and lines to catch cod and haddock. He helped start the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, forerunner of the Fishermen’s Alliance, because he was worried about bigger boats taking too many fish out of the ocean, and destroying the habitat.
By 2003, “we had a pretty good idea that he wasn’t going to groundfish anymore,” Sean remembers. Mark transitioned into lobstering.
Sean began helping his dad more, but college was always a foregone conclusion and there was no pressure to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Although some of his classmates at Harwich High worked on boats (and one of them still fishes today) not a lot of people were choosing that career.
“It’s hard to get into the industry,” Sean said. (Read the accompanying article “Fishermen across the country come together in nation’s capital” to see what Mark and Sean are doing to help solve that problem.)
Massachusetts only has about 1000 commercial lobster permits with no more being issued, so you have to buy your way in. A recent classified advertisement offered a “turnkey” business, with 500 lobster pots, for just under $115,000. No lobster business is allowed more than 800 traps.
Mark told Sean to choose whatever career he wanted. While Sean was in college, Mark made a career move himself, opening up a fish market, Dennis Lobster Company.
Although successful, it was a huge time commitment and kept Mark away from his family too much. As he was transitioning out of the market was when Sean said he would run the boat and things just fell into place.
“My job now is right here,” Mark said, feet up in his office, upstairs in a big bay on Main Street in North Harwich.
Leach used his McIveresque abilities to create a cleverly designed system of huge tanks, 10,000 gallons of running water, crates and cranes.
“This is all stolen technology,” he said with a laugh, although he likes to think he made some improvements.
The tanks provide a comfortable home for the crustaceans until they are shipped. And with coveted Cape Cod lobsters that doesn’t take very long; Leach said he can move 4000 to 5000 pounds a day.
His capacity to carry and care for the animals helps him maintain a good, steady price. “I knew if I could just stabilize these lobsters and hold onto them I could build my own market,” he figured. A lobsterman who shows up at the dock with live produce that must move right away has “zero leverage.”
Leach gets to work early, although not as early as one of his employees who enjoys getting up at 3 a.m. to separate the lobsters into categories: hard shell, firm and processor.
“Spring lobster, that first run lobster, is by far the best. We pride ourselves on having a great hardshell lobster,” Mark said, explaining that the hardshells have the best meat.
During May and June the clawed crustaceans come out of hibernation and at that point they are all hardshells. So captains are coming in with beautiful lobsters, usually after five p.m.
Sean is now working seven days a week. He is either on the water, buying bait and fixing traps, or maintaining the boats, which are on slips at Wychmere Harbor.
“We don’t get a real summer,” he said, adding that taking a day off is rare. And he will lobster right through Christmas, sometimes into January.
Sean says that he can see himself lobstering for the rest of his life. Sacrifices his father and others made have created a healthy stock, and demand remains strong. “It’s a real sustainable fishery,” Sean said, adding he has his fingers crossed that new regulations (or climate change, for that matter) don’t change that.
Meanwhile his lobsters are being shipped around the country. Mark can take 7000 pounds in his truck. It takes about 30 hours to get the lobsters, still alive and snapping, to markets down South, but even so Mark eschews planes after the one disaster awaiting a flight out of Newark; it was 110 degrees on the tarmac and he lost $4000 to $5000 when a thunderstorm grounded the plane and his lobsters cooked.
“I try and avoid that,” he smiled as he walked down the stairs out of his office.
He turned on a machine and let a winch and crane swing over a tote. He took out two three-pounders, “Cadillacs,” he calls them.
“My son is doing the hard work now,” said Mark with a grin. “Me, I go six or seven times a year.”