Remembering Joe Nickerson
One year ago, at 1:21 PM on January 23, I got an alert from the US Coast Guard that was intended for Captain Joe Nickerson. The Email stated “E PIRB is going off - F/V Hayley Ann. You can reach the US Coast Guard at 617-223-**** if you require assistance. Your E PIRB is going off, USCG coming your way soon.”
I only remember the next few hours as pieces of conversation and frantic phone calls as the fishing community focused its energy on a rescue effort.
As soon as word got out that a vessel was in distress, all the fishermen who were in the vicinity of F/V Hayley Ann hauled up their nets and steamed in the direction of her last known location. Rumors were traded back and forth about a life raft being deployed, the vessel being capsized, and the ultimate success or failure of the rescue operation. We didn’t know what was real or what was rumor, and we vacillated between relief and despair and hope and fear with every phone call or text. When word came back to shore that two bodies had been recovered and that there were no survivors, it was like the collective air was taken out of every room and wheelhouse along the coast.
I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car in shock after Gerry Cushman told me that his brother, Randy, had the bodies on his boat and that Joe didn’t make it.
It wasn’t until Joe’s wife, Sharon, called to let me know the Coast Guard had told her the same thing that I finally broke down and cried.
Joe Nickerson was on the Board of Directors of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association when they hired me in 2011 to help the small group of groundfish fishermen in Maine transition into a new management system called sectors. I was young with limited fisheries experience and Joe was one of the fishermen who took me under his (sizable) wing to teach me about how fisheries worked in Maine. Like many fishermen, Joe claimed to not like to talk, but as soon as you got him onto a subject he cared about you could lose hours on the phone or over a beer with him as he described the art of towing a net through the water, the strategy around catching elvers in Maine’s icy streams, or even the boredom of hauling traps when you wanted to be chasing fish instead.
In 2019, after years of serving as Vice-Chair of the Board of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Joe was elected Chairman. It was a big step for someone who never tried to take leadership, but who excelled when put in the position to lead. Joe was the type of a man who didn’t do a job half-assed. He and I would have frequent meetings while he mended gear, worked on his engine, or over a slice of pizza as we worked to identify new programs for MCFA, new policy priorities, and new strategies to help the fishermen and fishing communities of Maine.
I was sitting in the drivers’ seat of a beat-up Subaru in the parking lot of a hotel in Freeport in shock. I had been sitting in that seat for almost two hours after walking out of a meeting when the news first came in that the Hayley Ann was in trouble. I just could not bring myself to drive home while the rescue effort took place. Good news would eventually come and I could go back to work as usual.
There was no good news, there was no work as usual, so I sat in my car unable to understand what the hell had happened.
We still don’t know what happened. We probably never will.
Today brings up a lot of sad memories, but it is a day to remember Joe and everything he did for all of us who knew him. Since his passing, I’ve been told countless stories of ways Joe touched people’s lives or helped them when they were in need. No one would have ever described Joe as “warm and fuzzy”, but he was someone who cared deeply about those around him and the future of the community he was a part of. That will be his legacy.
It is also a day to recognize the resilience of fishing families and fishing communities.
In the year since Joe’s loss, I have had the privilege of getting to know Joe’s daughter, Hayley, as she
helped all of us find ways to remember and honor her father. Hayley worked with Sea Bags to design a beautiful tote and then helped sell over 250 of those bags to raise funds for programs that support Maine’s fishing communities. She has found ways to connect to the industry her father was a part of and share the love Joe had for the ocean and fishing with her young son. And the fishing community has embraced her. I’m sure every day is still a struggle for the Nickerson family, but I am also certain Joe would be incredibly proud of them and how they have responded to this tragedy. No one should have to go through what Sharon and Hayley have had to endure. But they have persevered through their own strength and with the love and support of the entire fishing community.
Personally, I’m still struggling. I don’t know that I will ever not struggle. There will always be the things I wish I had said or the thoughts of what could have been done differently. MCFA is still following the path Joe set us on and over the next year we will continue to build on the programs and work Joe thought was so important, but for today the work will be put to the side so that we can pause and remember a man who I miss dearly.
I hope you will take a moment to remember him with me.