• Nelson Sigelman

Remembering John Phillips; a Friend to Island Anglers


Derby fishermen line East Beach at sunrise. Photo by Carl Treyz

John Charles Phillips II died on Thursday, March 10. But for the mysteries of Google algorithms, which picked up on a reference to East Beach in his obituary, I would not have learned of his death at the age of 76 at his home in Portland, Maine.

The news put me in a melancholy mood. Not necessarily because John died—at a certain age we accept that we’re on life’s taxiway—but because I knew that few fishermen who had cast a fly into the current at Dogfish Bar, or watched a bluefish furiously snap at a plug off East Beach would recognize his name.

I first met John when he stepped off the Steamship Authority ferry in Oak Bluffs almost three decades ago. John was commissioner of the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Environmental Law Enforcement.

There are high-profile state and federal political appointees who are intoxicated with their authority and travel with an aide who hovers around them like a remora. John arrived alone, carrying a fly rod case and a small backpack.

We didn’t know each other, but he had accepted an invitation to stay with my wife Norma and me for the weekend. The plan was to fish Dogfish Bar, one of the premier fly fishing spots on the island, and hear from concerned fishermen about the frustrating effort to secure a longtime informal parking lot before it disappeared behind a locked gate.

For many years, property owner Dr. Jason Lew generously allowed fishermen to park in his small lot. A narrow path through the tick-laden beach grass led to the beach. A short cast was all that was needed to place a fly in the trough that ran parallel to the shore and in which the current carried bait to waiting game fish and game anglers.

On a good night, striped bass fishing could be legendary. But the informal parking arrangement, one similar to past conveniences that once offered fishing access around the island, was set to disappear when the property went on the market.

In 1996, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission stepped in with an offer to buy Dr. Lew’s entire parcel that stretched from Lighthouse Road to the beach. But the town land bank advisory board nixed the deal.

John appreciated the public value of this unique fishing spot. He asked Jack Sheppard, director of the Public Access Board, to step in and make a purchase deal. With minimal fanfare, the state bought the 2.4-acre beach-front lot in 1996 for $160,000, even as private shares in a nearby association gated parking lot were selling for $18,000 each, and now sell for much more.

The small parking area and path to the beach were reserved solely for the specific purpose of public fishing access. It was not John’s only accomplishment.

Three years earlier, under John’s leadership, the state completed the long contemplated purchase for just under $1 million of Leland beach, also known as East Beach, on Chappaquiddick. The 100-acre barrier beach stretches from Wasque to the Dike Bridge and provides access to some of the best fishing on the Island.

In a story published on October 1, 1993, the Vineyard Gazette reported, “Although it is privately owned, the Leland family beach has historically been open to the public. Now that tradition will remain intact.”

No key that sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars is required to get on the beach. You do not need to be a member of an exclusive club to walk or drive across Dike Bridge and cast a line and fish for bluefish, stripers, bonito, false albacore, and brown sharks. Under an agreement with the state, The Trustees of Reservations manages East beach, which joins the Wasque and Cape Poque reservations.

It is not unknown for elected leaders to console failed pols, heedless of their actual skills, with a plum appointment as a consolation prize. Give Gov. William Weld credit for appointing John in 1991 to head the state’s important environmental agency.

John, a Harvard graduate who held a master's degree from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, had experience working in government and nonprofits and a passion for the environment. He also liked to fish, which I consider a mark of good character.

In April 1995, the Division of Marine Fisheries held a series of public hearings on striped bass limits that included a well attended meeting on the Vineyard at which many fishermen argued strenuously for a more conservative approach. State fisheries officials, acting on federal guidelines, proposed a 28-inch recreational size limit and a 36-inch commercial size limit. The Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Commission, at the recommendation of Commissioner Phillips and with the support of Governor Weld, approved a 34-inch recreational and commercial minimum size limit. Although other New England states were free to adopt the 28-inch limit, Commissioner Phillips told the press that the decision to act conservatively on striper size limits should not be based on what other states are unwilling to do. He said those states “that do not choose to act in the best interests of conservation are the ones which are out of step.”

In 1999, Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci, a pol of the old school was elected governor. John unceremoniously lost his job, a fact he learned not in a gracious phone call from Cellucci but from a story in the Boston Globe that announced his replacement.

When Cellucci, on a visit to the Island stopped by the offices of the MV Times where I worked, I told him John Phillips deserved better. Cellucci was unmoved. As the years slipped past John and I lost touch. No matter. John Phillips, fisherman and conscientious champion of rare and cherished places, will be remembered by Vineyard anglers.

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