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Nicolosi Finds Himself a Fish Out of Water After Government Cutbacks

David Nicolosi, a commercial fisherman born and raised in Mattapoisset, a lovely, quaint village on the outer edge of Cape Cod, faced the decision of a lifetime in 2000.

Mon June 30, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

David Nicolosi operates this Cat 315B on a job.
David Nicolosi operates this Cat 315B on a job.
David Nicolosi operates this Cat 315B on a job. From about 1984 through 2000, Nicolosi fished in famed Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeth Islands. Now David Nicolosi fishes for fun.

David Nicolosi, a commercial fisherman born and raised in Mattapoisset, a lovely, quaint village on the outer edge of Cape Cod, faced the decision of a lifetime in 2000. Ever-tighter government regulations and restrictions on the amount of fish he could land were costing him his living.

Fin Fish No More

From about 1984 through 2000, Nicolosi fished in famed Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeth Islands, laying traps primarily for lobster and hauling seasonal fin fish — mostly black sea bass on his boat called the Jessy Lyn (after his wife).

On board was Nicolosi, a year-round crewman and up to four other crew members with him over the best part of the fishing season.

"Government cutbacks had no regard for an individual’s ability to earn a living or support their family," said Nicolosi. "The government regulations cut my earning capabilities by at least 75 percent. Restrictions were varied such as fishing days, catch limits and gear reduction."

For example, the black sea bass fishery went from no restrictions on landings or fishing days to five allotted days at sea with a 500-lb. landing limit.

"Over the course of approximately five years this one restriction represented a loss of revenue of approximately $75,000 per year," said Nicolosi. "My landings went from approximately 35,000 lbs. per year to 2,500."

In 2000, some 15 years ago, Nicolosi made a challenging, scary and completely necessary sea change — from liquid to solid, selling his ocean gear and buying gear to move the earth.

Working Without a Net

The first challenge came in the classroom.

"I went to a local Fisherman’s Transition center, where we were instructed in various skills such as resume writing, etc. If you made it through the class you then could qualify for retraining funding. The schooling funding was limited to less than one year. My C.D.L. training lasted about 12 weeks," said Nicolosi. "As I was transitioning out of fishing I began to experiment with small excavation jobs such as demolition of an old barn, grubbing out back yards, etc.

"We experimented with excavation through work on the farm, digging ponds, windrowing stumps, clearing pastures, etc. The government offered limited buy-back programs designed to remove effort from certain fisheries," Nicolosi said. "Either sell your license, if you could, or be forced out by bankruptcy. The end result is the same. They did offer some retraining opportunities for displaced fishermen; I chose to get my C.D.L license, knowing it would be necessary if I wanted to pursue a career in excavation."

Nicolosi started with a single borrowed backhoe. He then purchased a used excavator, initially used on his farm for limited agricultural projects.

"It was a part-commercial, part-hobby farm," Nicolosi said.

The rough individualism of commercial fishing, the split-second timing and thinking such rigors required sharpened his skills quickly. Coupled with extreme motivation to achieve and provide for his family, Nicolosi’s modest operation took root.

"Having been a commercial fisherman required me to be able to think on my feet. There is no one to call if things go bad when you’re on a boat. Most fishermen become very resourceful and creative when faced with adversity," Nicolosi said. "Also, there is no 9 to 5 on a fishing boat, no holidays or weekends. That type of work experience proved very helpful with my career on land.

"To date, I pride myself on never having missed a construction deadline," said Nicolosi. "I don’t care if we work seven days a week or until midnight we have never failed to get the job done when it was supposed to be done."?

Full Services

Now 15 years into his second major career, Nicolosi Excavation offers full excavation services geared towards residential work, especially on waterfront homes. Examples are demolition, foundations, septic systems, water and sewer tie-ins, retaining walls, large scale earth moving, pre-landscape and more.

"I am a licensed drain layer and septic installer in more than seven local towns. Each town has its own licensing and permitting requirements," Nicolosi said. "We also do excavation for elevated pier foundations. We specialize in hard-to-do waterfront projects that take considerable amount of effort because of site and environmental conditions.

"We also do small scale environmental remediation, dune plantings etc. as a function of working on homes that are in close proximity to resource areas. We adapted to offer this service as well," said Nicolosi.

Nicolosi runs his company much the same way he did his commercial fishing operation.

"I’m still a very small company and prefer to keep it that way. I like to be on every job personally, I think that comes from running a commercial boat for so many years. I set the pace every day and my guys follow my lead," Nicolosi said. "I have two full-time employees and several on-call part-timers, depending on the scope of the project."

At first, Nicolosi couldn’t completely let go of the traps and the nets. Old habits are hard to break.

"Initially, I would do excavation projects between fishing trips. Over approximately five years I transitioned away from fishing and eventually ended up selling my boat and going full time with excavation," Nicolosi said. "Several years after selling out, I purchased a sea bass license with an eye for keeping busy someday when I retire. I now fish part time and to keep my permit active," Nicolosi said. "I would like to be able to go fishing in the future, however I don’t see the regulations ever being relaxed enough for it to be a living, but it is great exercise and fishing is always in your blood."

On the eve of his 15th year in construction, Nicolosi operates his machinery with two full-time employees.

Unexpected Discoveries

One prominent project they have tackled is the restoration of an old house on the waterfront.

"The size, age and scale of the project presented many unusual issues. For instance, there was a 24-inch municipal main drain line that ran under the existing garage. There were no records at the Highway Department of its existence. We found it by accident," said Nicolosi. "Also, there was an old buried tunnel leading from the basement to the house across the street. It is believed to have been used for the Underground Railroad or for rum running. We found that as well."

Like any good fisherman toughing out a quota, it is the tougher jobs, the ones that make him think, that he prefers.

"Anybody can dig a hole, it is the sites that have very tough terrain or tight working conditions that I like the best. We get a lot of jobs that others don’t want. That’s great," said Nicolosi. "Working in a sensitive area requires consideration of erosion control and minimal impact to resource areas. We did a large [110] stone groin reconstruction. The site was completely destroyed by hurricanes in the past 50 years. It required transporting approximately 700 yards of large boulders and chink stone across 800-feet of beach front. We had to work in very restrictive footprints and around tide cycles. From a liability standpoint, excavating in a public way around underground utilities is probably the most dangerous, you really have to pay attention every second. There is a great potential for things to go wrong. Safety is everything."

Nicolosi sums up his business advice for other contractors into six simple words of consistency:

"Work hard, be honest and avoid debt. I have lived in Mattapoisett my whole life. Word of mouth is the most important form of advertisement there is," Nicolosi said. "Simply, do a good job, meet scheduling commitments, give it 100 percent and the rest will fall into place. My business model is I do it the same way as if I owned the property. I don’t cut corners and my customers really appreciate it. I wouldn’t do anything on someone else’s property that I wouldn¹t do on my own. Period."


David Nicolosi has volunteered on the local Conservation Commission for several years. He also helps the local Land Trust with equipment, muscle and materials.

He excavates and snow plows at a local church, even though he is not a parishioner there. No, he hasn’t yet become a fisher of men.

"I am not a member. However, I see the good that they do. I faithfully plow them out because I know there are a lot of seniors that attend. My guys know that the church is priority # 1 and I want the sidewalks bare and dry for every service."

Nicolos’s office is his home and his base of operations at 1 Industrial Drive, Mattapoisett.?

For more information on Nicolosi Excavation, call 508/509-1973.

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