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Currents of Change for Maine’s Fishing Industry

The history of Maine, including Harpswell, is tied to the sea. Indigenous people are known to have harvested the bounty of the ocean for thousands of years. Their population was quite small and their technology was limited, so they had little impact on the resource. When Europeans first arrived on these shores, they were astonished at the diversity of edible species available for the taking, and the incalculable numbers of fish and other creatures on offer. Numerous accounts from those years talk of rivers and inshore waters teeming with alewives and Atlantic salmon, and the ease with which a fishing boat could be filled with giant cod up to five feet long.

Groundfishing, the harvest of species that live in close proximity to the ocean bottom, was the first colonial industry in America. Large schooners began making regular journeys from New England to England and various European ports laden with high value protein. In line with the development of other industries in the New World, over the last 400 years changes in the methods, people and productivity of groundfishing allowed for incredible harvests from the sea but at a great long-term cost. With limited scientific knowledge of the ocean ecology and fish populations, combined with little regulation of fishing methods and harvests, species after species was exploited in the rush for riches.

In this century we have been forced to come to terms with unprecedented low stocks of groundfish and other species. Populations of a number of species have plummeted – halibut, ocean perch, haddock, yellowtail flounder, urchins, shrimp – and there is concern that species like Atlantic salmon and cod may have fallen below the level needed to sustain reproduction. Fishermen have been subjected to strict quota limits that affect their ability to earn a living as their families have done for generations. With overall harvests at a fraction of their historic levels, the fishing industry has faced hard times, loss of incomes and jobs, and the devastation of local economies in fishing communities. Many fishermen have been forced to seek other forms of employment and there is considerable unease about the future of commercial fishing as it has long been practiced here. Only a handful of commercial fishing boats still sail from Maine ports.

For some perspective, I spoke with Bailey Islander Jim Hays, the former harbormaster for Harpswell. Jim remembers days on his grandfather’s fishing boat in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. When the men took a break from fishing for lunch, Jim would drop a baited handline over the side of the boat. It was not unusual for Jim to haul in 12-15 fish during lunch, many of them cod and pollock up to three feet long. The fish were so heavy that a 12-year-old Jim could not lift two of them at once.

Jim described squid lining, the practice of dropping multiple weighted lines overboard, each line equipped with dozens of sharp hooks. The squid were often so thick in the water that you could simply pull the lines up and catch dozens of squid with no need for bait. Jim recalled watching boats dragging their nets around the outside of the ledges rich with fish. As the technology changed, the boats were then able to drag the top of the ledges, yielding many more fish but putting more pressure on the fish population.

When asked to comment on the current situation, Jim noted that several species of fish play a crucial role in the lobster industry, with herring, pogies and redfish the predominant species used as bait. In recent years, the populations of herring and pogies have fallen to the point that NOAA has instituted tight quotas and limited harvest seasons for the fish. This has led to higher bait prices, and combined with higher fuel prices, a squeeze on lobster economics for the fishermen. This summer the quota for pogies was already filled before the lobster season reached a peak in August to November, a cause for real concern. We also discussed recent studies that show rapid warming and acidification of the sea in Casco Bay and indications that the lobster population in southern Maine waters may be dropping.

In a review of the groundfishing industry’s history, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sought to understand the historical, scientific and human dimensions that influenced the resource, the fishing industry and regulatory decisions over the last 100 years. The review shows that many of the issues facing the industry were forecast as early as the 1930’s but few concrete actions were taken to halt the march of an increasingly mechanized and efficient fishing fleet. The peak of the industry in our lifetimes occurred in the early 1980’s when harvests of cod and haddock were particularly large. But then fish stocks began a decline that has not yet touched bottom, while demand for healthy seafood continues to grow.

Now the demand for enhanced research and regulation emanates from fishermen themselves and a host of other constituencies including environmental groups, the general public and elected officials. Decades of supporting industry growth left the federal government vulnerable to charges that its policies aided the collapse of fish stocks, and damaged the ocean environment. Congress and coastal states have launched programs to assist fishing communities through vessel buy-outs, job retraining, license withdrawals and subsidized health insurance for fishing families. While the diversity and productivity of New England fisheries was once unequaled there is now an imperative to balance the fishery with the ecosystem. The goal is to bring ocean stocks back to sustainable levels so the fishing industry can survive and provide badly needed food supplies to a hungry world.

It would be easy to think that there is only bad news to go around but there is a great deal of new life in Maine’s fishing industry. In recent years there has been a burst of marine related business ventures up and down the coast. In some cases, the companies are harvesting products from the ocean, including those collecting rockweed and dulse for processing. In other cases, companies are cultivating fish and other species for sale into the food industry. This cultivation is broadly called aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, shellfish and plants. The term aquaculture refers to the cultivation of both marine and freshwater species and can range from land-based to open-ocean production.

Aquaculture has a surprisingly long history in Maine, with activity dating back to the late 1800’s. According to the website of the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), the original laws governing fish and shellfish culture date to 1905. The leasing of Maine waters for the private culture of marine fish, shellfish and plants, however, has a more recent history. In 1973, legislation was passed to support the fledgling aquaculture industry with DMR given the authority to lease state-owned waters to individuals and businesses for aquaculture use.

The first official lease, in 1973, supported a salmon and blue mussel farm near Damariscotta established by Ed Myers, a pioneer of shellfish aquaculture in Maine. Although his salmon culture was unsuccessful, warm water temperatures and high productivity made the Damariscotta River an ideal site for growing shellfish. During the 1980’s mussel and oyster aquaculture underwent a period of substantial growth to the east with farms popping up in the Penobscot Bay area. Today, mussel farming spans the coast from Casco Bay to the Jonesport area. While oyster farming has similarly spread along our coastline, the Damariscotta River continues to be the premier location in Maine. Clams, scallops and urchins are also farmed, on a smaller scale, in various locations throughout the state.

Jim Hays discussed the growth of aquaculture in Harpswell. When Jim became Harbormaster in 2006, he recalls just two people growing oysters in town. Today there are more than 100 active shellfish leases in Harpswell with 29 new applications submitted to Paul Plummer’s office in 2020. As noted in the July Anchor newspaper, Doug and Susanne Banes are offering Devil’s Back Oysters for sale. The Quahog Bay Conservancy founded by Patrick and Mary Scanlan in Cundy’s Harbor created a company called Snow Island Oysters to market their products. Jim has also been raising 45,000 oysters in retirement, interested in the challenge of farming a delicious product in what he calls the “largest garden on Earth.”

Along the coast of Maine there were 769 active Limited Purpose Leases in place last year. These leases, intended for research and experimental aquaculture, cover up to four acres of the ocean floor for a period up to three years and cannot be renewed. In addition, there were over 100 commercial leases than can cover up to 100 acres and run for 20 years with the option of renewal. Half of the leases are used for oyster cultivation, but there are hundreds for mussels, and over 150 for marine algae. An investor friend of mine reports that competition for leases has reached the point where consolidation of the industry is occurring, with large mussel farms buying out smaller operations to gain their lease sites.

The growth of fish farming was slower to develop, probably because growing fish is more complex and expensive than growing shellfish. In the 1970’s rainbow trout and coho salmon were farmed in floating pens on the Wiscasset River and on Vinalhaven Island. The first official ocean finfish lease was in 1981 for ranching of pink and chum salmon. Ranching varies from net-pen aquaculture in that fish are raised in marine net-pens until they smoltify and imprint on the lease site; the fish are then released with the goal of harvesting upon their return to the site for spawning. The risk is that the fish do not survive the many hazards of living in the open ocean, including offshore fishing nets. Fish ranching never gained a hold in Maine but in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s net-pen aquaculture was established. In 1984, Ocean Products Inc. created farms in the cold, clean waters of Cobscook Bay. Today there are multiple Atlantic salmon farms along the Downeast coast, most of them owned by a huge New Brunswick company, Cooke Aquaculture. Consumers are beginning to understand that farmed salmon offers an excellent product well suited to dietary needs, without further pressure on beleaguered wild salmon stocks.

The last decade has seen an acceleration of change in the Maine fishing industry. Aquaculture firms such as Acadia Harvest, a company that was founded by Harpswell resident Chris Heinig and involved several other town residents including this writer, proved that it was possible to grow and market high value California yellowtail for local, regional and national markets using land-based indoor recirculating systems. Not only do local economic development groups like Coastal Enterprises (CEI) and the Maine Technology Institute offer grants, loans and expertise to aquaculture startups, but the National Science Foundation offers multi-million dollar grants for the development of new aquaculture technologies, including a $20 million grant to the state of Maine.

California yellowtail (Acadia Harvest, Inc. photo)

While Acadia Harvest ultimately decided to suspend operations, the groundwork laid opened the door to a number of other land-based ventures. One of the most exciting is American Unagi, a company selling live and smoked eels to a nearly insatiable market here and in Asia. Rather than shipping the tiny elvers harvested along Maine’s shoreline to China and Japan, American Unagi is growing thousands of eels in tanks. The eels reach market size in less than one year and sell for prices that few seafood products can achieve, up to $25 per pound. This is the only US company growing eels and was successful in raising several million dollars from investors to build a 27,000 square foot factory in Waldoboro, Maine.

Now the stakes are really rising, as major multinational firms have chosen Maine as a great place to invest in large scale aquaculture operations. Maine offers a long coastline, good water quality, experienced fishing industry workers and a very strong market brand. Whole Oceans has chosen Bucksport to build one of the largest land-based aquafarms worldwide to grow Atlantic salmon. Nordic Aquafarms has been laying the groundwork for a salmon farm along the Little River in Belfast that would result in a $500 million investment and 150 new jobs. A Dutch company, Kingfish Zeeland, just received the final permit from DMR for a new plant in Jonesport to grow California yellowtail. If all of these firms are successful, let alone a number of other proposals in process, Maine’s fishing industry will be well on its way to a more prosperous future.

Change of this sort does not go smoothly, businesses are not always successful, and some people resist change if it might affect their way of life or the environment around them. Heated debates occurred over a proposed 35 acre oyster lease for Mere Point Oyster Company lease in Maquoit Bay, Brunswick, that was ultimately approved. Nordic Aquafarms ran into considerable opposition to its plans in Belfast from a group called Local Citizens for Smart Growth who fear that Maine is on the verge of a “wild West” era of fish farming. Perhaps remembering the days when the harbor in Belfast was fouled by upstream chicken processing plants, some activists have claimed that the proposed salmon farm will degrade ocean water quality.

The best answer to those concerns is that all aquaculture operations must go through a rigorous permitting process with careful oversight by regulatory agencies such as DMR and public comment periods. Through careful design of water handling systems, detailed reporting to government agencies and routine inspections, it is likely that the water being discharged from the Nordic plant will be cleaner than that in the ocean surrounding its outlet pipe. In recognition of this, both the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Atlantic Salmon Federation have been supporting land-based salmon farming as a safer alternative to ocean net-pen farms.

Jim Hays noted that older fishermen are often reluctant to move away from the work their families have done at sea for generations. In the face of depleted stocks of soft-shelled clams thanks to invasive green crabs, some clam harvesters have shifted to shellfish farming. While there are growing threats to our robust lobster industry from a warming ocean, rising acidity and parasites, few lobstermen seem interested in taking a new tack in their work. Jim could recall only one local lobsterman who took up the challenge of growing oysters but ended up selling out. Yet Jim was optimistic that younger people from traditional fishing families will see the opportunities in an evolving fishing industry.

CEI for several years has offered training for people interested in cultivating shellfish or marine algae in Maine waters. In the current economic climate, with thousands of jobs going begging in Maine, there is probably less pressure for fishermen to consider alternative ways to earn a living on or near the sea. But the growth of the aquaculture industry will create a need for thousands of new employees with the skills to work in diverse jobs. Fortunately, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and Washington County Community College received a $500,000 grant from USDA to develop an aquaculture training program at the college, while the University of Maine has bolstered its educational offerings in the field. With any luck, Harpswell’s fishing community will have as rich a future as they had a robust past.