Gulf of Maine seafood has fed people for thousands of years and still plays a critical role in providing for New Englanders. But marine systems in this corner of the Atlantic have been radically altered over the years. Now, as fisheries decline and some fishermen are forced to abandon their livelihoods, The Nature Conservancy, Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center are collaborating with fishermen on a novel plan to keep boats in the water and begin to restore the Gulf’s bounty.
Today, the three groups announced that they have purchased two fishing permits, and will make those permits available to fishermen involved in collaborative research projects. The organizations are covering the costs of the research, including the permits, fuel, fishermen’s time, and time for research supervision scientists.
“I think that making sure we do something to improve the condition of the Gulf of Maine is one of the most important conservation issues of the day,” said Michael Tetreault, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “The basic solution is this: we acquire some interests in fishing permits, and make them available to fishermen doing research on more sustainable fishing practices. The cost to underwrite this work doesn’t fall on the fishermen, it falls on conservation organizations.”
“Right now, eastern Maine fishermen have no access to groundfish: we lost that when we lost the fish, over 15 years ago,” said Robin Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center. “Penobscot East sees permit banking as the only way to restore the right to fish when these stocks recover.”
“Maine’s island and remote coastal economies are heavily dependent on the lobster fishery,” said Rob Snyder, the Island Institute’s vice president of programs. “Permit baking is critical to these communities because it will allow fishermen to experiment with conservation-oriented gear that will help bring diversified fishing opportunities back to our coast.”
Now that The Nature Conservancy, Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center purchased groundfish permits, the access associated with those permits (days at sea and/or catch history) will be made available to local fishermen for research. The research will be used to gather data on distribution and abundance of groundfish species, and also to develop gear configurations and fishing practices that minimize bycatch and reduce impacts on sensitive marine habitats.
Eventually, the sustainable practices identified through the research will be presented to scientists, fishing communities and fisheries managers so that they may put the findings into practice themselves.
“This is wonderful because finally we’ll get some information to help us understand why we’ve lost our fish east of Penobscot Bay – a necessary first step towards what I remember - landing and selling local fish the length of the coast,” said Ted Ames, a fisherman and co-founder of the Penobscot East Resource Center.
Cold, nutrient-rich waters enter the Gulf through a narrow channel and rise to the surface of the coastal shelf, creating one of the world’s richest habitats for cod, haddock, flounder and other groundfish. However, over the years conditions in the Gulf have deteriorated. Now, these once-abundant stocks are among the most depleted in the nation.
“Fishermen are tired of not seeing fish. They want to do whatever they can to bring them back,” said Glen Libby, president of Midcoast Fisherman’s Association, one of the groups that will use the permits to conduct the research. “But they need to be able to afford to bring them back.”
Libby and other fisherman in Port Clyde have been testing other innovative ways to sustain local fisheries, like starting a community-supported fishery (CSF). “Local, sustainably-caught fish has a value on the market that can earn fishermen more for the fish we catch,” said Libby. “This research is a key step to helping us use those sustainable practices to earn a better living.”
“Collaborative research has been one of the bright spots in the groundfish fishery over the past decade” said Geoff Smith, the Conservancy’s marine program director in Maine. “However, the recent requirement for fishermen to use their limited days at sea to do the research has had a chilling effect on the program. We purchased these permits so we can work directly with fishermen on research projects that will ultimately improve gear selectivity and reduce impacts on sensitive marine habitats.”
The Island Institute is a nonprofit organization that serves as a voice for the balanced future of the islands and waters of the Gulf of Maine. The Institute is guided by an island ethic that recognizes the strength and fragility of Maine's island communities and the finite nature of the Gulf of Maine ecosystems. Along the Maine Coast, the Island Institute seeks to: support the islands' year-round communities; conserve Maine's island and marine biodiversity for future generations; develop model solutions that balance the needs of the coast's cultural and natural communities; provide opportunities for discussion over responsible use of finite resources; and provide information to assist competing interests in arriving at constructive solutions.
Penobscot East Resource Center is a community-based organization whose mission is to secure a future for the fishing communities of eastern Maine. It operates in communities from the Penobscot Bay islands to Canada, an area with more than 50 communities and over 2000 fishermen. The organization sponsors community science, provides leadership training, and advocacy for the restoration of the diversity of the marine ecosystem and the fishing economy of the area. www.penobscoteast.org
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.