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Conversation series seeks to promote understanding of working waterfront

Susan Olcott
October 22, 2021

Originally published in the Harpswell Anchor

Harpswell has over 200 miles of coastline. From the long stretch of Harpswell Neck to the wiggly ins and outs of Quahog Bay, there is great variety. Some of the coast drops steeply off into the waters of Casco Bay, while other parts have gradual, shallow, intertidal transitions from land to sea. That’s just a snippet of the natural characteristics of the shore. Perhaps just as varied is the human component. Some areas of the coast are wild and uninhabited. Others are crowded with houses. Some stretches have seaside inns and restaurants and others waterfront businesses and structures like piers and wharves. There is no doubt that Harpswell’s waterfront is complex. The question is how to best understand and appreciate its complexity.

One of the things that makes Harpswell truly unique is the working component of its waterfront. Much attention has been given to the concept of a working waterfront in an attempt to define its characteristics and highlight its importance to communities. In a 2019 report by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, “The State of Maine’s Working Waterfront,” the working waterfront is defined as “a property that provides access to the water, such as a wharf or pier, and is utilized for recreation as well as commercial activities.” This report looked at waterfront communities from Portland to Jonesport in an attempt to identify what makes these waterfronts unique and what the challenges are for commercial fishermen trying to earn a living there.

When commercial activities coexist with recreational ones, there are often complicated questions of access and allocation of space along the shore. Those involved in commercial fishing businesses need space for support services like bait, fuel and ice along with access for shipping, storage and maintenance for their equipment. All of these are essential pieces of a working waterfront.

One of the issues facing waterfront communities along the Maine coast is a shift in demographics. Maine is a beautiful place and has attracted many newcomers who want to live on its shores. Purchases of and improvements to seaside properties can make values rise to the point that those who work on the water can no longer afford to live there. A study by NOAA Fisheries, “Social Indicators of Gentrification Pressures,” identified Harpswell as a community significantly impacted by gentrification, for example.

In order to look specifically at Harpswell, the town worked with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in 2017 to create a report, “Beyond the Bow: A Fisheries Needs Assessment of Harpswell.” This report looked at changes in the community over time, citing the loss of waterfront access and the rising costs of fishing as challenges to the character of the town. One of the key recommendations of the report was to address the lack of knowledge about fishing heritage that exists in the community.

Several local organizations, along with the town, have been seeking ways to bridge this knowledge gap. To that end, one effort taking place this fall is a collaboration between the Cundy’s Harbor Library, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, the Holbrook Community Foundation and the Harpswell Anchor, with support from the Broad Reach Fund. These groups are hosting “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community: A Conversation Series,” which will include two panel presentations with accompanying articles in the Anchor. The idea is to help build a collective understanding of the components involved in being part of a waterfront community and to provide information and encourage discussion.

The first event, “Fishing through the Seasons,” will be held at the HHLT office on Oct. 21 from 6-7:30 p.m., both in person and via Zoom. Representatives from a variety of fisheries, including shellfish, groundfish, lobstering and aquaculture, will discuss what they catch, how and when. Monique Coombs, of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, will participate in the panel and moderate the hourlong conversation, which will be followed by questions from the audience.

The second event, “Conversations From the Fishing Community,” will be at the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall on Nov. 18 from 6-7:30 p.m. It will be an informal storytelling session with members of different generations of Harpswell fishing families sharing their experiences. The goal of the participating organizations is to continue this series in the spring in order to build a shared knowledge and understanding of the working waterfront within the Harpswell community.