It’s not that Frank Watkins believes that fishing has healing powers, or that reeling in a big sport fish off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland makes children with terminal illnesses forget about their own internal fight.
“But you get out on the boat and these kids, and their parents, get to think about something else for a little while,” Watkins said. “They get to make some memories.”
Watkins is a lifelong sports fisherman and the President of the Atlantic Coast Chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association.
“I’ve been fishing since I could crawl,” Watkins said, of growing up on the New Jersey Coast. “I’m retired now and I get to fish a lot more for tuna and mahi offshore, flounder in the bays, black sea bass. Pretty much, if it’s going to bite, I’ll go fish for it.”
He also gets to work with children a lot more, teaching them how to fish, and volunteering with the association, where “we provide education and help improve the environmental habitat for fishing. It’s all so we have fishing – recreational fishing – available for our children and grandchildren.
“God’s blessed me,” said Watkins. “My kids, my grandkids, are all healthy and smart. I’ve had such a good life, and I enjoy fishing, that this is how I give back to the community.”
His favorite projects?
“We taught an entire sixth grade at a local school how to cast. Went out into the field next to the school building. Set up a couple of stations. It was amazing to see. We had almost 200 kids.”
For the adult fishermen, “we have guest speakers come to our meetings to show us how to, for example, handle flounder so they don’t get killed when bringing them to the boat. You have to minimize mortality of fish getting released, especially if your catch ones that are undersized.”
The association also works with local environmental groups to build mad made reefs off the coast of Maryland.
“We received a grant to build what looks like these giant jacks made of concrete. Off the shore here in Maryland, unlike North Jersey and New York, we don’t have structure, like rocks and boulders, to support habitat for black sea bass and a host of other species of fish. These reefs on the bottom create the nooks and crannies for marine life to get in.”
It may sound like a lot of work, Watkins said. But it’s important work.
“Fishing is important. It’s relaxing. Whether you’re on a boat or fishing from a stream, it’s a place you can go to get away from it all.”
Ocean City, Maryland- Ginger Nappi may have tried her hand at careers away from the water, but something always drew her back home.
“I wanted to be on the water. I wanted to be with the fish, with my family.”
Now she is. Nappi helps run her family’s Martin Fish Company in Ocean City, Maryland.
Martin Fish Company was founded by Nappi’s grandfather, then worked by Nappi’s father, and now by Nappi and other family members.
“I’ve been around fishing since I was born. In elementary school, (my brother and I) would take turns going out with dad on his day trips.”
Nappi’s father is Sam Martin, who now serves as the Vice President of Operations for Atlantic Capes in New Jersey.
“We’d get up at five in the morning…watch the sunrise on the deck while steaming out into the ocean. When the crew was hauling fish onto the deck, he’d hook me on to a cable and a life jacket so I could be on the deck and watch. We’d be up to our knees in fish.”
Once Nappi turned 18, she started helping out with the operations back at the harbor.
“Anywhere they need me, I jump in and help. Unloading the fish, packing them in boxes. I’ve been inside vats before, icing them up and packing them up. I’ve been slimy from head to toe.”
Martin Fish Company practically does it all at the harbor. The boats come in. We unload the fish. We pack it and either ship it out or sell it in our retail store.”
In the retail store, where Nappi spends most of her time, “we do whatever the customer wants. We sell whole fish, or process it. We fillet for restaurants, and steam crabs and shrimp.”
And, of course, there’s the secret family recipes.
“My grandmother came up with a bunch of soup recipes and clams casino. My aunt and I still make her recipes and sell them here.”
The selling feature for Martin Fish Company?
“It really is the freshest seafood possible. We get the fish right off the boats. There’s no middleman. It’s boat to market to customer.”
Will Nappi’s son head into the family business?
“It will be up to him. But I like knowing he’ll learn the value of working hard, that if you see something that has to get done, you jump in and do it. He’ll learn that here, even if he doesn’t become a fisherman.”
Fishermen are today’s undervalued heroes.
Paul Farnham passionately believes that.
As hunter-gatherers, fishermen are among the “last of the indigenous people in today’s world – a fast, paced technology driven world. Those guys on the back of the boat, they are my heroes. Real true heroes. They go out in brutal weather. They don’t get paid a lot. They still do it.”
And that’s why Farnham spends day in and day out welcoming commercial fishing boats back to the Town Dock in Montauk, New York, practically the northernmost port in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region.
Farnham doesn’t own the dock. He’s not even a wholesale fish dealer. What Farnham offers fishermen in Montauk, through his company the Montauk Fish Dock, is unique, he said.
Simply put, “we unload and freight forward.”
Commercial fishing boats pull up to Farnham, whose team helps unload the boat (called packing out), weigh, ice down and package. Then he ships it.
Most docks have wholesale operations right there, he said. Fishermen unload and sell their catch in one place.
“Our service provides the opportunity for fishermen to unload and sell and market themselves to whoever they want,” Farnham said.
Most of the fish are sold on consignment to Fulton Fish Market in nearby New York City, but some of Farnham’s clients ship their fish overseas, as far away as the West Coast and to various wholesalers outside of the area.
Farnham, originally from Canada, worked in and around commercial fishing all of his life. He bought his unpacking and freight forwarding business in Montauk in 1988 and has been a staple on the docks ever since.
So much so that in 2006, while battling cancer, Farnham never missed a day of work. He would get his chemotherapy treatments and return to the dock.
Ask Farnham to describe himself and he’ll tell you “I’m first a cancer survivor. Then I’m a fisherman. You really have to be a survivor to be a fisherman these days.”
Many fishermen, when asked about the challenges to their community today, talk up regulations.
“Regulations are a given. Our challenges are our survival. We need docks to unload. Our threats are real estate, environmentalists and the government.”
Farnham leases his unloading property at the dock. Within throwing distance is a piece of property, he said, sold eight or nine years ago for just more than $1 million. Today it’s valued at more than $4 million.
Then there’s the constant work to ensure the market isn’t oversaturated with fish, yet properly priced for the consumers to eat and fishermen to still make money.
“By the time fish gets to someone’s plate, there’s a lot of hands that have touched it. A lot of middle men.”
From the fisherman to Farnham, Farnham to the delivery driver, from the wholesaler to the restaurant, and finally to a kitchen and a plate.
Each time, a few more cents of operating and handling fees add on. On average, for example, Farnham charges 18 cents per pound of fish unloaded, iced and shipped.
Looking toward the future, Farnham plans to get involved in reducing “the number of hands each fish goes through” and open something of an online fish market.
“I’d like to be able to unload the fish from here and ship it directly to the consumer. This way, the consumer saves money and gets real deal, same day, fresh fish” from his fishermen heroes.