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‘It’s disheartening’: Plymouth Harbor lobstermen brace for impact of cruise ship surge

Cruise dockings are set to surge this summer in Plymouth, where lobstermen are concerned a short season could grow even shorter

Lobstermen Dan Holmes (left), past president of the Plymouth Commercial Fishing Association, and Tom O’Reilly, a member of the Plymouth Harbor Committee, are pictured at the town wharf in Plymouth.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

PLYMOUTH — On a cold, rainy afternoon last month, lobstermen Tom O’Reilly and Kurt Holmes walked out to a nearly empty pier overlooking Plymouth Harbor.

It’s quiet here in the winter, but the public pier quickly becomes crowded in the warmer months as fishermen, lobstermen, shellfishermen, and charter boats crowd in, all vying to load and unload catch at the three publicly provided winches.

This spring, users of the pier will often have a new obstacle to face: a cruise ship. And they worry the tourist vessels could upset the delicate balance of Plymouth’s working waterfront.

“We’re very functional right now,” said Holmes, president of the Plymouth Commercial Fishermen Association. “But it doesn’t take much to shake that up.”


Last summer, cruise ships came to Plymouth for the first time in decades, with three pilot dockings by American Cruise Lines, a “small ship” cruise operator that’s adding Plymouth to its itinerary of summer stops in New England coastal towns.

To the town, it’s an injection of tourist dollars — American Cruise Lines claims its average passenger spends $175 per day at restaurants and stores on dry land. But to fishermen like Holmes, the ships represent wasted time and lost product by making it even harder to access the narrow passage to the harbor’s three winches.

Mechanic Robbie Burgess climbed atop the pier while working on a boat at the town wharf in Plymouth. (Craig Walker/Globe Staff)
A flag whipped in the wind at the town wharf. (Craig Walker/Globe Staff)

After pleading with the town and American Cruise Lines to make accommodations, the Plymouth Commercial Fishermen Association, which has 85 boat members, felt left in a lurch as neither the town nor American Cruise Lines granted their concessions.

In January, the Plymouth Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to allow the cruise line to come more often, permitting 23 visits between May and the end of October. As part of the agreement, the cruise line will pay the town $3,000 per stop between May 11 and June 15 and $2,000 per stop thereafter when the prime fishing season is through. But Holmes’ fisherman’s group urged more accommodations to enable fishing to coexist with cruises. They got nowhere.


So now, the Plymouth association is threatening legal action.

“I’ve been so upfront in the forefront of this — I’m just so tired,” said O’Reilly. “Fighting everything, constantly.”

The main cause for concern, O’Reilly said, is clogging up the pier at the beginning of what is a relatively short season. Fishing grounds are closed for about three months beginning in February due to whale activity in Cape Cod Bay, after which the lobstermen scramble to get their traps into the water before lobsters begin their molting season in June and are no longer as active in the water. Lobstermen also find it highly profitable during this period due to a winter shortage, with the supply yet to recover in the summer.

But even the date they can return, Holmes said, is fluid, hard to predict, and depends largely on the whales. As they prepare their equipment, they wait for an email from the state that gives them the go-ahead at 9 p.m. the night before the closure ends. The reopening date is typically anywhere from May 1 to May 16.

Right when the cruise ships arrive.

Lobstermen Dan Holmes (left), past president of the Plymouth Commercial Fishing Association, and Tom O’Reilly, a member of the Plymouth Harbor Committee, walked on the pier while touring the town wharf in Plymouth.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Initially, O’Reilly said, the town promised a blackout on cruises from May to June 15. But the cruise line argued they would lose out on a third of their season.

The fishermen then asked if the cruise ship could dock in the harbor and ferry passengers in rather than pulling up to the pier. That didn’t work either: the cruise line argued that their clientele tends to be older, and getting on and off a small boat would be difficult.


Now, the cruise line says it would not interfere with the town winches. Both O’Reilly and Holmes said they would wait and see.

O’Reilly questioned if the town was looking out for the economic input the fishermen create each year. Plymouth’s commercial lobster fleet brings in over $4.3 million alone, he said, with fishing overall generating over $10 million.

“We are not against the cruise ship at all,” said O’Reilly. “But how many people can go that long without a paycheck?”

American Cruise Lines, the largest river cruise line in the country, says there shouldn’t be much overlap. Alexa Paolella, a spokeswoman for the company, says American Cruise Lines are not the massive vessels that big cruises evoke. The vessel visiting Plymouth is compact, holding only 100 passengers interested in curated experiences on land. Two of its itineraries — the Yankee Seaports Cruise and the Cape Codder Cruise — will stop at Plymouth, part of an eight-day voyage that costs between $5,000 and $7,000.

According to Chad Hunter, the Plymouth harbormaster, in preparation for the town’s 400th anniversary in 2020, the harbor was dredged to allow historic tall ships and other large vessels to enter. The $18 million federally-funded project followed a town-funded project to redo the nearly 100-year-old pier in 2017.


Town Manager Derek Brindisi said adding a cruise line to the port is part of Plymouth’s economic vision and plan. Ultimately, they want to expand cruise visits by taking ownership of the harbor’s state-owned pier, which holds the Mayflower II and is steps from Plymouth Rock.

Lobsterman Dan Holmes, past president of the Plymouth Commercial Fishing Association, posed for a portrait at the town wharf. (Craig Walker/Globe Staff)
Boats were tied to the pier at the town wharf. (Craig Walker/Globe Staff)

He acknowledged that things could get tight this summer but said the impact should be minimal.

“There may be a stressful day or two during that period,” said Derek Brindisi. “The Selectmen say we can overcome one or two days. We are not trying to overcome an entire six-week window. I think people lose sight of that.”

But to lobstermen like Dan Holmes — Kurt Holmes’s cousin and a former president of the Commercial Fisherman Association — it’s not just about a few days but a way of life. He grew up lobstering with his grandfather and uncle, and his family still owns five boats in Plymouth Harbor, but he’s not sure he’d recommend his children, who are in college, continue with it.

“The fishing industry is there if they choose it. We haven’t given up hope yet,” Holmes said. “But, honestly, the way the regulations are going, I would not push them but encourage them to go in a different direction. It’s a great life, but it’s a hard life.”

And he worries the cruise ships will make it harder. For two years, he has sat in late-night meetings, voicing concerns not just about the ships’ impact on lobstermen but on the harbor itself, to no avail. Lobstermen like him have had to deal with new regulations, new gear, fishing ground closures, and now this in their own home port.


“We’re fighting the feds, we’re fighting the state, we’re fighting the whale people,” said Dan Holmes. “You would think the town would have our back, and they don’t, and it’s disheartening.”

Lobsterman Dan Holmes, past president of the Plymouth Commercial Fishing Association, and his dog Ozzy walked the town pier in Plymouth.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff