Fisheries Research in the Gulf of Maine
Watch a video to see this collaborative research with Gulf of Maine fishermen in action.
Geoff Smith, marine program director in Maine
By Kate Frazer
An average meal in the United States travels at least 1,500 miles before it reaches consumers, but when it comes to seafood in Port Clyde, Maine, the distance from ocean to plate is often just a few miles. Connections between coastal Mainers and the food they eat have always been easy to trace — long before "eating locally" became a hot idea.
But how long can eating local fish continue in Maine’s coastal communities? More than a decade after the Gulf of Maine’s cod fishery was on the verge of collapse, many stocks of groundfish are still struggling, and more and more fishermen are being forced to abandon their livelihoods.
Now, The Nature Conservancy and several other nonprofits are working with fishermen on a novel plan: to purchase fishing permits and allow fishermen to use those permits to develop more sustainable harvesting practices — like using more selective gear and avoiding sensitive habitats. With your help, we can advance innovative collaborations like this in the Gulf of Maine.
The Gulf of Maine’s complex underwater lands and well-mixed, nutrient-rich waters once created a paradise for fish and fishermen. Hundreds of boats once fished for groundfish such as cod, haddock and flounder between Port Clyde and the Canadian border. Today, just one boat docked east of Port Clyde actively fishes these species, and the take has dropped dramatically.
“When I first started fishing, we’d go to the same places we go to now,” says fisherman Glen Libby, his breath disappearing into the fog as the first slivers of light appear on the Port Clyde waterfront. “An average steam might be an hour and a half out and you’d catch all the fish you’d need: 3,000 to 4,000 pounds."
"But last spring, some of the guys had to steam 100 miles out and couldn’t even catch 1,000 pounds in 24 hours.”
Geoff Smith, the Conservancy’s marine program director in Maine, says the situation in the gulf surfaced from a combination of factors:
For Maine communities, this mix of problems could mean the loss of working waterfronts and industries that have defined the state.
And for fishermen like Libby — who has plied these waters for 30 some years — it could mean the loss of a tradition that passes down through generations.
Fishermen in Port Clyde have been experimenting with sustainable practices on their own, according to Smith — but they can't do it all themselves. “Trying new things under a management structure in which you have limited days at sea and fewer fish is incredibly risky,” he says.
To help mitigate that risk and keep boats on the water, the Conservancy has partnered with The Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center to purchase groundfish permits and distribute the “days at sea” provided under those permits to fishermen, who will research ways to modify their fishing gear to minimize the catch of juvenile fish and unintended species and reduce impacts on bottom habitats that provide shelter for young fish.
“This program will give these fishermen additional time on the water to develop more sustainable fishing methods,” Smith explains. “If the cost to underwrite these changes fell solely on fishermen, it’d drive them closer to bankruptcy. Instead, we believe conservation organizations should share some of the cost.”
The Conservancy believes that the scale of the problem in the Gulf of Maine demands working with communities up and down the coast to restore degraded habitats and rebuild depleted fisheries.
But true sustainability also depends on what happens on shore when these fish are brought to market. That’s where consumers have an important role to play.
“Developing markets that allow fishermen to make ends meet catching fewer fish while depleted populations are recovering is an essential part of this plan,” says Smith. “We envision communities up and down the coast where fishermen can land their fish and get a premium for their catch because customers know it was caught locally and in a responsible way. Identifying more sustainable practices is the first step.”
As Glen Libby puts it: “It is our responsibility to future generations to say: ‘We will continue to have fish; we will continue to feed people.’ But it isn’t just on fishermen; it’s on all of us who use the resource.”
“After all,” he adds, “these are your fish, your gulf.”May 31, 2011
Kate Frazer is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy.