An early misstep works out, putting Nick Muto in the wheelhouse
By Doreen Leggett
DATELINE: 0420641N, 0671456W, 145.2 Mi SW of Clark's Harbour , NS
400 LB TUNA!!! IN THE CLOSED AREA, WHILE GILLNETTING. CAUGHT IT ON A DISCARDED HADDOCK THIS MORNING!
That message, from Captain Nick Muto, arrived in the mailbox of Ray Kane, outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, one early morning while Muto was still on Georges Bank.
Muto was allowed to fish in what otherwise was a closed area because he had cameras onboard that record everything he catches, an accountability that grants him greater flexibility from regulators.
That perk, which Muto much appreciates, is now available to more than 20 captains around New England who have opted into the program. But Muto is one of an even smaller group who have been granted a federal Exempted Fishing Permit through the Fishermen’s Alliance to rig his boat with gillnets and go groundfishing, while also allowed to catch a Bluefin tuna on the same trip.
That kind of opportunity was once an important element in the fishery.
“Traditionally, small-boat fishermen were able to access a diversity of species on a single trip, including tuna and groundfish, which made good business sense," said John Pappalardo, Chief Executive Officer of the Fishermen's Alliance.
“It’s just one of the added benefits of electronic monitoring,” Muto added. “We can use different gear types and make it more profitable for the boat.”
Muto was able to land groundfish such as cod, plus the tuna – which he happily sold to Chatham Fish and Lobster – and one halibut, which he also is catching under a pilot program launched by the Fishermen’s Alliance and several partners. While the gillnets were soaking, he and his crew were jigging with hooks for cod which Muto, and several other fishermen, have sold to Whole Foods Market as premium product.
“We are busy all day,” he said.
All several days actually.
Muto and his crew of three left Chatham in the late afternoon and arrived on Georges Bank 12 hours later. Typically he will leave at 5 p.m. on a Thursday, for example, to get to the grounds around 8 a.m. Friday, back at the dock on Monday. Then he will try and go lobstering Tuesday and Wednesday, ice up, and leave again on Thursday.
They had seen tuna swimming around in past trips, but Muto didn’t have the permit in his possession yet so he played it safe.
“My guys were all excited,” he said, “but I wanted to make sure we were 100 percent within our rights.”
This time he had the permit. The second day at sea, under the watchful eye of the camera, they were throwing back haddock that were too small to keep. Those discards, as they are called, count toward the allotted pounds, or quota, Muto is required to report.
Tuna were hanging out by the boat snagging the haddock. So Muto put a hook in one, swung it over the side, and sure enough a Bluefin bit.
“I’m not very good at tuna fishing,” he said with a laugh, but he didn’t have to be. “They were eating off the side of the boat. They were starting to frenzy.”
Using a rod he brought the fish to the back of the boat and passed it off to a crewmember so he could drive and make sure the tuna didn’t go underneath.
They brought the big fish up after 45 minutes or so.
“It’s something that breaks up the monotony of the trip. It’s a morale booster,” Muto said.
Reeling in a halibut provides excitement as well. Halibut used to be a thriving fishery but now fishermen are limited to one fish, literally, per trip. Muto’s biggest weighed close to 200 pounds.
Local fishermen have been providing George Maynard, research coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, with hundreds of samples so Maynard, and other scientists, can gauge the health of the population. The hope is that this crucial information will lead to re-opening the fishery in the United States; Canada, just a few hundred miles away over the Hague Line, already has a thriving, sustainable fishery.
Muto, 39, also goes monkfishing and owns a lobster boat, but he came to the industry late.
“Commercial fishing was never on my radar. I wish it was,” he said.
He and two younger brothers grew up on the Cape. His dad was a postmaster in Orleans, mom a preschool teacher, and the family moved from Harwich to Orleans when he was 4.
He spent most of his time outside roaming the woods, riding mountain bikes, and surfing.
“It was a different Cape back then,” he said.
When he got older he worked in restaurants, including some no longer around like LoCicero’s in Orleans and The SouWester in Chatham (where he was a bouncer), and imagined opening his own restaurant someday. He did spend some time working on outboard motors and built a jeep with his dad, which ended up serving him well years later.
Out of high school he ended up at Salve Regina in Rhode Island and likely would have followed the food service trajectory if he didn’t get involved in another business, illegal at the time -- marijuana sales.
Superbowl Sunday of his junior year, 2000, he was arrested, spent eight days in prison, and was kicked out of school. Besides the fact that he owed his parents $30,000, things went alright.
“There was a never a conviction for a misdemeanor, it was kind of a non-issue,” he said.
But he ended up back on Cape in February and needed a new career path. He knew Carl Johnston on the Honey Do, a dragger out of Chatham, and readily took a slot on the crew.
Johnston in turn introduced him to Kurt Martin, who needed someone to clean lobster pots in his garage.
“It was great,” remembered Muto. “I would go to work 12 hours a day in his shop and he was all about it.”
Martin asked if he wanted to crew on a trap boat, weir fishing, and Muto promised him a season, knowing even if hated it he could last that long.
“Kurt has taught me a ton about the industry, about hard work,” he said. “I was into it. The money was good, we were outside, we were on boats. It was cool. It checked all the boxes.”
Martin ended up getting Muto a job on the Dawn T. for Captain Stu Tolley. He worked with Tolley for three years and then Captain Mike Russo for three years, then two years lobstering. He bought a lobster boat in 2008, which he named the Lost because he had no idea what to name it. He sold her five years ago, only to buy another, named the Miss Evelyn after his young daughter.
He had met Evie’s mom, Sarah, at a local gym and ended up not only married but with a brief stint as a cage fighter.
Mixed martial arts was up and coming so when the gym gave him an opportunity on their team, he was in.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was the most present I’ve ever been. It calms you down. It gives you an outlet.”
He got commission on tickets and the fights were in Plymouth so he would rent a bus, sell 100 tickets, and use the money to pay for training.
“I miss it a lot,” he said.
While all that was unfolding, Tolley approached him about running the boat with the understanding he would buy it.
Now he owns two boats and sees a lot of opportunities in the fisheries, although he would like to work a big enough boat to combine both operations.
"Nick has embraced the challenges of fishing on Cape Cod,” noted Pappalardo. “He has diversified into multiple fisheries, hired young local crew and often led the way on adopting new science and technology to improve fisheries management.”
Muto does have some advice for federal fisheries managers:
“I would want more accurate stock assessments and more industry involvement in stock assessments,” Muto said, explaining why he grudgingly became a proponent of EM:
“Cameras get me away from observers … Human observers have never done anything positive for me,” he said.
The other big carrot is that EM gets him into closed area. “I can set a dollar figure to that,” he said.
Muto has decided to engage in fisheries policy, which can be frustrating, even maddening; he is on a monkfish advisory panel and is chair of the board of directors for the Fishermen’s Alliance:
“If I am going to be a part of this I owe it to myself and the future of the industry to be involved. I have no right to complain if I’m not.”
Lately he has helped advocate for a new young fishermen’s development program, which would train novices to work as crew, and hopefully move to the front of the boat and own a business someday.
“I’m trying to work on a vision past my own business,” Muto said, “trying to start programs here to get people involved.”