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Waterfront Conversation Series Tackles Access, in All its Forms

Susan Olcott
June 1, 2022

Originally published in the Harpswell Anchor

What is access? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, access is “permission, liberty, or ability to enter, approach, or pass to and from a place or to approach or communicate with a person or thing.” Two words jump out of this definition — people and place. Both of these themes featured prominently in a recent panel discussion in Harpswell that considered what access means along the town’s waterfront.

“Access for the Fishing Community,” presented on May 11 at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse, was the latest in a series entitled “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community: A Conversation Series,” presented by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Holbrook Community Foundation, Harpswell Anchor and Cundy’s Harbor Library. The collaborating organizations initiated this series in the fall in order to create a dialogue about the working waterfront among members of the community who bring different perspectives and experiences. Two presentations in the fall focused on the seasonality of fisheries and fishing families.

The access conversation was the first of two spring events. The second, in June, will focus on etiquette on the waterfront. The panelists were Robert Boyce, a local clam harvester and fisherman who sits on the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee; Mary Ann Nahf, chair of the Harpswell Conservation Commission; and Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Attendees listen to a panel discussion about access to the waterfront at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse on May 11. (Photo by J.W. Oliver)

“What is access?” was the opening question posed by Monique Coombs, director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and moderator of the conversation series.

Boyce brought up the issue of waterfront parking in Harpswell, particularly at high tide. Nahf discussed her work as a part of the Casco Bay Regional Shellfish Working Group to identify current and historical intertidal access points. She referred to the group’s recently released guide, “Preserving Access to the Intertidal: A guide for coastal stakeholders and municipalities,” available here. Martens described access to fishing permits and zones.

The discussion continued with questions from the audience, which included how real estate agents can provide an introduction to the waterfront for people interested in moving to Harpswell. Another audience member asked how existing property owners could establish good relationships with harvesters regarding access over private property.

“Talk to us and you’ll find we’re pretty nice. It just takes starting a conversation,” Boyce said. “Tell us what works for you. If you don’t want us there certain days of the week or certain times of the day, we can do that.”

Cundy’s Harbor Library Director Heather Logan shared an anecdote about her 97-year-old mother, who has long-established relationships with harvesters who access the flats from her property. “My mother says, ‘This is my land, but your path,’” Logan said. “It’s a beautiful relationship.”

Boyce said that anyone is welcome to attend the monthly meetings of the town’s Marine Resources Committee to learn more about shellfish harvesting and meet some of the people involved.

Other questions focused on what residents can do to protect natural resources along the waterfront. Poor water quality has closed clam flats in parts of Harpswell. Problems with septic systems can contribute to poor water quality, and Nahf said the town has resources available to help address septic issues for those in need of assistance.

Another way community members can support the working waterfront is to eat more local seafood. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association provided samples of its Maine Coast Monkfish Stew at the event. Martens said the stew both introduces people to monkfish, a species that is less known or “accessible” to consumers; and provides proceeds for the association’s Fishermen Feeding Mainers program. This program purchases fish from fishermen at a fair price and donates it to schools, food banks and community groups throughout the state.

The evening ended on a high note, with Coombs asking the panelists for simple solutions to access issues. As Martens put it, “People are good at the end of the day. It all starts with a conversation. The more we connect, the more we can build shared goals. People come here because they love it and they want to care. We have to give them the tools to do that.”

A recording of the May conversation is available online.