Can we save Maine's fisheries?
When fish stocks plummet, fishermen are out of work. See how our new program could help revive both fish and fishermen.
By Kate Frazer
Eating fish from the swirling waters off Maine’s coast is a tradition that can no longer be taken for granted. Declining fish stocks, depressed prices and fisheries regulations that discourage good stewardship have forced many fishermen to sell fishing permits out of state, prompting many Mainers to wonder: Is there a future for local fish?
Determined to keep Maine’s fisheries alive, fishermen from the tiny village of Port Clyde formed the Midcoast Fishermen's Coop (MFC), a cooperative that requires members to use lighter gear and more sustainable methods, including giving certain species a periodic break.
The Nature Conservancy and local partners the Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center are aiding their efforts by purchasing fishing permits and making them available to fishermen willing to practice sustainable methods and test new technology.
But the plan won’t work without changes on the consumer side. So Claire Bissell, Kim Libby and their fishermen husbands Glen and Gary took a cue from local farmers and developed a novel way to market their catch.
“The four of us went to a ‘FishTank’ (like ‘think tank’) meeting at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, where we heard a woman speak about a Community-Supported Fishery (CSF) in South Carolina in which members pay a lump sum for the season then receive a weekly share of shrimp to cook at home,” says Claire.
“On the drive home, we were all so excited. We kept saying: ‘this could really work here.’”
A few months later, they were handing out bags of sweet Maine shrimp — a tiny delicacy of the Gulf of Maine’s cold winter waters — in the snowy parking lot of the First Universalist Church in Rockland. “People were thrilled,” says Claire. “They exchanged recipes and ideas for using the shells. And when we decided to try fish, we started getting lots of calls.”
If this idea sounds familiar, it’s because CSFs do essentially the same thing for fishermen that CSAs (community-supported agriculture) do for farmers. The benefits are similar as well: Customers get fresh, local food, fishermen get more financial stability and the entire community gets involved in protecting a fishery that sustains the way of life they value.
Less than two years after its founding, Port Clyde Fresh Catch provides weekly fish shares at 11 different locations from Bath to Orono. And if you want to join the CSF, you talk to Claire, who works as the company’s events coordinator. These days, she’s also busy selling fillets of pollock, redfish, cod or flounder at farmers' markets in Rockland and Washington. Port Clyde’s presence at the markets is new, but the reaction has been tremendous.
“People love to pick up our fish plus herbs and vegetables grown by local farmers — everything they need to make an entirely local meal,” she says.
By selling fish through the CSF and farmers' markets, Port Clyde fishermen can afford to harvest fewer fish because they are paid more for their harvest. “Selling fish through the usual channels, the boys average 60 to 70 cents a pound.” says Claire. “Now, they’re paid between two and five times that, and at the beginning of the season so they know many of their expenses will be covered.”
The Conservancy’s permit banking project complements this strategy by sharing the costs involved in conducting research and testing new practices.
“It’s another tool for keeping access to fish in the community,” says Claire. ”Fishermen will be able to afford to experiment with different gear and methods. For instance, if there are too many young fish in one area, they’ll be able to move elsewhere to fish without being on the clock.”
And while the Conservancy helps fishermen try new things at sea, the CSF encourages customers to try new things in the kitchen. “People have been incredibly supportive,” says Claire. “When we have a new fish like red fish that no one has tried, we hand out recipes and they come back with great stories and new dishes.”
Sometimes, members of the CSF also share in the struggles of fishing. Claire recounts a time when the co-op couldn’t fulfill orders due to bad weather and a broken boat: “We had to double up on the share the following week, but customers were very understanding. They said they’d just fillet the fish and freeze it.”
But more often, they share in the rewards, which include a close-knit community, the knowledge that they are helping sustain Maine’s fisheries for the future and the simple pleasures of cooking — and eating — the freshest fish imaginable.
Read more inspiring stories of how Conservancy projects connect to community efforts to sustain local seafood.
Kate Frazer is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy.