It's just after 10 p.m. when the two men from the Beverly Harbormaster's Office begin the long walk down the 300-foot public pier on the city's waterfront. The dozen or so people with fishing lines dangling in the water know what's coming.
"All right, time to go, everyone," Assistant Harbormaster John LeClerc says.
The fishermen pick up their gear, grumbling in the dim light. As they walk back to land, LeClerc and fellow Assistant Harbormaster Mike Gelineau stretch a shiny white chain across the pier's entrance.
LeClerc and Gelineau were enforcing a rule on a fading sign that has been there for years: "Pier Closes At 10 p.m."
But recreational fishermen who use the pier say the rule was never enforced until last month. The recent crackdown, they say, is robbing them of a way of life that has existed on the waterfront for decades, even before the pier was built in 1990.
"There's a real subculture down here, and they just wiped all that away in the blink of an eye without any consideration," Eric Yanco said. "That's what's so insulting."
Just why the 10 p.m. curfew is now being enforced is a matter of dispute between fishermen and harbor officials.
Harbormaster Dan McPherson acknowledged that enforcement of the curfew has been "lax" in the past. He said the Beverly Harbor Management Authority, the volunteer board that oversees the waterfront for the city, asked his office to start sticking to the rule due to a rash of complaints from commercial and recreational boaters at the two city-owned marinas on either side of the pier.
McPherson said the complaints were about public drinking, littering and destruction of property. The pier fishermen have been casting across boats, he said, tangling their lines in propellers and antennas and smashing boat windows with their fishing weights. A treble hook landed in the city's inflatable rubber fire boat.
"It's been brought to a head by the increased less-than-desirable activity," McPherson said.
Donald Neuman, the acting chairman of the Beverly Harbor Authority, said the board supports the enforcement of the 10 p.m. curfew, which he said applies to all city properties.
"There's no God-given right that I have to fish on that pier after 10 o'clock at night," he said.
Several people who fish on the pier denied that they have caused any trouble. They say the real reason for the crackdown is the influence of Joseph Leone, the Black Cow restaurant owner who plans to open a restaurant on the waterfront.
Leone has a deal with the city to build a Black Cow on city-owned land near the pier. As part of the arrangement, he could also end up managing the city's marinas, although city officials say that has yet to be determined.
Several fishermen said Leone, a Beverly resident who started docking his boat at the marina last year, doesn't want to be disturbed by the fishermen. They say he has been watching them from his boat with binoculars.
"A lot of us guys fear that as this restaurant is built they're going to take away fishing for us permanently," said Timothy Mezakowski, a 23-year-old Beverly resident who's been fishing off the pier since he was 5 years old. "This guy (Leone) is so eager for us not to be fishing here."
Leone acknowledged that he complained to the Harbormaster's Office about the fishermen on the pier but said he is only one of about 20 boaters who did so.
Leone said he has nothing against people fishing from the pier as long as they don't cast. He said he is worried about possible damage to his boat from lead weights when fishermen cast their lines away from the pier.
"We're just trying to protect our property," he said. "I've had a boat down there for a couple of years, and I've found hooks and weights on it. People have gotten holes in their windshields.
"Most of (the fishermen) are nice people, but some of them are characters and the characters are going to ruin it for others. If you say 'Don't do it,' they're going to do it more to challenge you."
As part of the recent crackdown, the Harbormaster's Office strung wire on poles across the end of the pier to prevent people from casting.
The pier fishermen say the enforcement is going too far. If only a few people are causing problems, they say, officials should deal with them individually rather than end a cherished tradition. They say late-night fishing is popular with people who work late or have trouble sleeping, and the pier is the only well-lit and safe spot for nighttime fishing in the city.
"Some of the guys have fished around here for 50 years, and they're getting thrown out," Mezakowski said. "This isn't just a place for fishing. It's a place for people to get to know each other and have good conversation."
Jose Calzada, who has been fishing off the pier for eight years, said he plans to start a petition to keep the pier open after 10 p.m. Yanco said he wants to organize a sit-in on the pier.
"When the big guy starts picking on the little guy, that's what bothers me," Yanco said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at email@example.com.