Nantucket's Only Lobsterman Ready To Call It Quits

Jason Graziadei •

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Nantucket lobsterman Dan Pronk kicked his feet up earlier this week inside the wheelhouse of his 43-foot fishing boat, the Black Earl, and summed up his feelings about his livelihood in just three words.

“I’ve had enough,” Pronk said.

The island’s only lobsterman is preparing to call it quits. After nearly 40 years of fishing for lobsters offshore, Pronk is putting his business up for sale: the boat, his permits, and more than 800 traps. It was a difficult decision, he said, but one that came as a result of an accumulation of factors that, year by year, have made his occupation increasingly difficult.

“It’s death by a million cuts,” Pronk said, starting with the lack of dockage on Nantucket, the cost of fuel and bait, along with strict federal regulations on lobster fishing aimed at protecting whales, and the looming prospect of hundreds of offshore wind turbines being constructed in the area where he sets his traps.

“We’re still making money, but we’re not making the money we used to, not even close,” he said. “And at 52 years old, I’m beat up from doing this for so many years, and I see my work level go up, and I see my profit margin go down for the past few years, and it’s just, I’ve had enough.”

Even with those pressures on his lobster business, Pronk is still struggling with the decision to leave an industry that he’s been a part of since high school.

“That’s what I've been wrestling with - it’s kind of my identity,” he said. “I’m ‘Dan the lobster man.’ Everyone knows me as that. What am I going to do if I'm not ‘Dan the lobsterman?’ What am I going to be?”

Pronk is considering downsizing to a smaller boat and continuing to fish around Nantucket, probably dragging for squid and fluke. Even though he has job offers on the table from some of the offshore wind farm companies that are preparing to install hundreds of turbines south of Nantucket, Pronk says he has no intention of working for them.

“I’m not ready to do that,” he said. “I’m not ready to go work for the people who are putting me out of business. My wife says ‘you’re crazy, go do it. It’s an easy job.’ They want to pay me to drive around in this boat down there and tell them what I see. I can’t do it. It would be like Luke Skywalker going to work for Darth Vader.”

More than 400,000 acres of the Atlantic Ocean south of Nantucket have been identified by state and federal authorities for offshore wind energy projects, areas that have been or will be auctioned off to project developers like Vineyard Wind. Pronk and other Massachusetts fishermen continue to raise concerns about the potential impacts of offshore wind farms.

“Once they start pounding those wind turbines in, they’re not going to have to worry about whales or nothing,” Pronk said. “I don’t think lobster fishing south of the island has five years left in it. Once they start pounding those wind turbines in? There are three monopoles and each one goes 160 feet into the sea bed. What kind of noise do you think that’s going to make?

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Pronk’s federal permits allow him to set his 800-plus lobster traps in an area that extends roughly 60 miles south of Nantucket. He’ll typically head out with a crew of one to two people, steam to the west end, through the Muskeget channel, and out into the open ocean on the first leg of a 6-and-a-half hour trip.

When Pronk first started offshore lobstering south of the island, federal regulations allowed a permit holder to set 1,200 traps. That limit has been steadily reduced over the years to the current 400 traps per permit (Pronk holds two permits), while new rules that require breakaway lines and other measures to protect whales from entanglement have made the work more complicated and costly.

Concern for critically endangered right whales recently prompted an annual closure of “area 2” for three months - from February through April - when the whales are typically feeding in those waters. This year, the price of fuel is roughly double what Pronk paid last year, while the cost of bait, which he buys in New Bedford, has ballooned from $140 per barrel to $220 per barrel. It all adds up, Pronk said.

Then there’s the dynamics of selling his catch on Nantucket and competing against cheaper alternatives from larger operations at mainland ports.

“The fact that it’s cheaper for these fish markets on the island to pick up a phone and call the mainland and order 500 pounds of ‘Nantucket lobsters’ because as soon as they come to this island they get branded ‘Nantucket’ but they came on a plane,” Pronk said. “They didn’t get caught and brought to this island by a local guy. It’s constantly fighting the market prices and the ‘well, I can get it from a guy on the Cape for this much money and I gotta pay you more.’ Well, I deliver to your door, they’re caught by a local person, then I bring them to your market, and I put them in your tanks.”

Despite it all, Pronk said, his life has been spent on the water. It’s where he wants to be, and where he’ll likely stay. Even if he’s no longer trapping lobsters.

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