It was a miserable day on Steamship Wharf Thursday.
Another cold, rainy April morning with the wind up a bit.
But Tony Alvernaz’s guys were out working on the nets of the Ligia — a scalloper worth somewhere around $6.5 million that Tony and the bank own a third of. They were working in the rain because on Saturday, they were planning to steam out to one of the closed scallop areas east of Nantucket, which is open for the first time in about 20 years. It’s scallop season and they need to make money.
Tony is the guy caught with a scallop overage last week — 300 pounds over the 18,000 pound limit for a trip to another closed area off New Jersey. He admits to having about 50 pounds of scallops placed out of sight of the feds in the Luiga’s shower stall and refrigerator.
The rest of the overage was because it can be tough to estimate the weight of scallops, Alvernaz told me. “It’s not easy bringing in the exact weight on a product that absorbs water,” he said. On one trip to the New Jersey area, the scallops were all mushy, he remembered. These ones were very firm.
Tony also remembered his last unsatisfactory trip to a closed area when he was unable to get all the scallops he was entitled to.
“They failed to mention that on my last closed area that I went, I was 700 pounds under,” he said. “I shot for 300 under to play it safe so I wouldn’t be persecuted and shot at the dock.”
Alvernaz said he understands NOAA has to do its job and that in recent years they’ve been more reasonable in their enforcement. Years ago they would have confiscated his whole trip, he noted, but now they just gave him a fine and will deduct his overage from his next trip.
“They don’t punish you to the max,” he said.
By any measure imaginable, Antonio Alvernaz is an American success story.
Brought to this country from the Azores when he was six-years-old, he speaks English without an accent. He’s married to a marine scientist and lives in Sandwich where the schools are better for his two kids.
But Alvernaz is 55 now and his body beat up from years on the ocean. His skin is weathered from the sun and his hands have a bit of arthritis and get numb from Raynaud’s Disease. He’s a working boat captain who’s managed over the years to buy half of two boats and a third of another.
First he bought the Kathryn Marie and worked like hell to pay it down. Then he got the Hunter. Same thing.
Alvernaz, who actually worked for NOAA for six years in the ‘90s when the fishing was poor, acknowledged that there’s big money to be made now. His crews can make as much as $200K a year, he said.
For himself, he explained that you don’t take home most of the money when you’re paying a boat down. But in the long run, if you keep making money, that’s your retirement. There’s no company-run 401Ks or pension plans on the waterfront. He’s trying to put his two kids through college.
Before Alvernaz was caught with the extra scallops I didn’t know him. He called the paper, he said, because he doesn’t want the whole industry to be painted as thieves. “They’re always trying, they’re trying to make the industry look evil and corrupt,” he said.
Alvernaz, unfortunately, is one of the waterfront heirs of Carlos Rafael, who by any measure, is a big-time thief who never seemed to give a whit about whether any of the fish in the sea survive beyond his own lifetime.
The feelings run high on the docks between the industry and the environmentalists. They have debated endlessly over the science of measuring what is and is not in the ocean, and the ways that fishermen devise to evade the restrictions on the fishing effort. No one, however, seems to know how to devise a system that works for both those trying to make a living and those trying to save the ocean.
One thing is clear, however. What Tony Alvernaz was doing was not a wholesale defrauding scheme like Rafael. He’s a small-time fishing boat captain — he did not control both the fishing boats and seafood dealers — whereby he could fool NOAA by misreporting his catch and then verifying the misreporting at the seafood house.
What Alvernaz was doing was trying to maximize his effort within the regulations and he got his numbers wrong. By a bit. Still, his is the kind of small-time skirting that environmentalists worry is widespread and makes the government’s numbers on the fishing effort wrong.
Alvernaz told me about a scalloper he met at the auction who recently told him about discarding a couple hundred pounds of scallops as he began to approach port. He had a scale on board and realized the product had gotten heavier as it absorbed water. That dumping is illegal because the scallops don’t survive and it skews the efforts of regulators to know how many fish are out there. But it’s understandable in a world in which fishermen are trying to balance the equation of making a living and protecting the ocean.
It’s not an easy formula to come up with a system that is in the best interest of everyone. But it’s one that we have to find the answer to.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.