Local Fisheries

Winter 2007-2008
Ted Ames (shown with his wife, Robin Alden) believes that Maine’s fisheries need to be approached in ways similar to Maine’s organic agriculture in order to survive. English photo.

On Sunday, September 23, at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair, Ted Ames discussed parallels between organic farming and community-based fisheries in his keynote address to fairgoers. Ames is helping to recreate community-based fisheries, starting with programs directed at lobster and cod, at the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, Maine. He has been a commercial fisherman and high school teacher, and has done great work using oral histories to develop scientific models showing where old cod spawning grounds were in Penobscot Bay.

 He received a five-year MacArthur Fellowship to further his work.

The Local Food Movement and Maine’s Coastal Fishermen

Thank you for inviting me to discuss the ideas evolving around community-based fisheries in Maine. We at Penobscot East Resource Center really appreciate Russ Libby’s inclusion of small-scale wild fisheries in this year’s Common Ground Fair.

In particular, I’d like to talk about commercial fishing and how it relates to the organic farming movement. There are parallels between what organic farming has accomplished and what our community-based fisheries aspire to do. There are, of course, also differences in how we must tackle the problems we face. But make no mistake. Community-based fisheries are the ocean version of the local food movement. Today, coastal fishermen and coastal communities have recognized the importance of establishing a healthy ecosystem along Maine’s coastal shelf.

Many fish and shellfish stocks that once were caught locally have collapsed. They are gone, and along with them so have the fishermen who sought them. A closer look reveals that today, a wide variety of fish and shellfish are rarely seen locally, while others have completely disappeared. The scenario of lost fisheries has caused many fishermen to support efforts to increase species diversity.

It has not been an easy choice. To reverse this crippling depletion of local marine resources, we must protect local spawning grounds, local nursery areas and local habitats. Cod for example, don’t simply exist by themselves.  They are parts of very complex, integrated biological communities. They, along with their prey and predators, are embedded in a mosaic of different communities and habitats. They cannot exist in an area unless all the pieces are in place. If they are not, cod must either move away or die.

Maintaining conditions that allow “growing another crop” or year class of fish/shellfish every year is our major hurdle. But we must do so if we ever expect fishing to become a sustainable business that functions within the limits of our marine ecosystem again. Many fishermen believe the best and perhaps the only way to restore fisheries and maintain their abundance and diversity is by creating local areas where fisheries can be managed effectively. Doing that means placing reasonable limits on the size of a fishing operation and limiting the areas that a given fishing operation can fish.

Taking that position has often placed Maine’s coastal fishermen as far out of the mainstream of commercial fishing as organic farming used to be back when it first started. But instead of being just one more voice in the wilderness crying out for stewardship and common sense in our fisheries, we find we are all singing the same song.

Today, nearly all Maine’s coastal fisheries are depleted or collapsed from habitat destruction and overfishing. And for our many fishing communities, the bottom line has become a living reality… “No fish means no fishermen.” The simple truth is the power of today’s unconstrained technology is so great that it’s now possible for a fleet of modern vessels to wipe out any fish population on the planet. Technology simply has to be constrained. We know firsthand what the consequences of applying modern, heavy-handed fishing strategies are, because we’ve allowed it to destroy the productive capacity of many fisheries.

Maine’s coastal fishermen are forced to recognize what the options really are: Not that we’re going to get rich from fishing, but something much more absolute: Either we become stewards of our fisheries and restore them to high productivity, or, if we don’t, we will disappear from Maine’s coast just as surely as buffalo hunters did from the Great Plains.

When you step back from it all you can see that every single fishery that once was important to Maine’s coastal economy has crashed. All that is, except for one. That last remaining fishery is, of course, Maine lobsters. Today, lobsters represent 89% of the total value of all seafood landed in eastern Maine! (76% of the value of all seafood landed in the whole state)

Today lobster landings earned thousands of fishermen $280 million dollars last year, and the fishery is the economic base of many coastal Maine fishing communities. The fishery has been the only thing keeping coastal communities away from a major economic disaster. Without lobsters, eastern Maine would be finding out firsthand what living in an impoverished Appalachia during the Great Depression of the 1930s [was like].

Instead, Maine fishermen have this healthy lobster fishery. All of us readily acknowledge our dependence on it. And pray that it stays healthy.  At the same time, we also realize that lobsters are part of a larger biological community and that having lots of lobsters depends on keeping that marine ecosystem healthy.

We have to start treating our other fisheries the same way that organic farmers do the land.  We have to become stewards of the sea, because our livelihoods depend on it.

Fishermen and fishing communities … All of us have to work together to rebuild our depleted fisheries to regain the diversity that once made coastal fishing a resilient and sustainable business.

The question is how are a bunch of hardheaded, independent turkeys like us ever going to change the mindset of today’s top-down, ineffective federal management system? Fisheries managers run around wringing their hands, saying, “Nobody here has the guts to do what’s needed to fix those fisheries … And I don’t think anyone else does either! So just stop bugging us!”

But here in Maine we happen to have this wonderful example of how to rebuild a depleted fishery, and how to turn it into a fabulous, sustainable economic engine. And it worked so well that now we want to do [it] to all our collapsed fish stocks!

Yes, it’s the lobster fishery again. What most people don’t know is that our $280 million/year lobster fishery wasn’t always doing so well. Back in the early 1930s, the fishery had collapsed. Back then, right in the middle of shedder season, right when fishing was best, fishermen would haul through their traps and be lucky to get a dozen lobsters for the day!

Just think of it! The 1930s lobster fishery had been trashed.

But what could fishermen and the state have done back then to turn it into New England’s incredible and only sustainable fishery? Some say it’s just luck.

Some others say that it’s because we caught up all the codfish. Right! As though lobsters were the only thing in the ocean a cod would eat! If that’s the reason, then why was it that Cape Cod Pilgrims complained about the windrows of dead lobsters that kept being washed ashore by bad easterly storms? Remember now, that was before the cod in Cape Cod Bay had ever been touched by fishermen.

I think it might be more related to this:  Starting after the collapse of lobsters in the 1930s, lobbying by many fishermen and by DMR [Department of Marine Resources] persuaded the Maine Legislature to pass laws that:

1.    protected juveniles with a minimum sized measure;

2.    protected broodstock with a maximum measure and V-notch.

In the following years, more laws were added that:

3.    protected habitat by restricting lobstering to “traps only”;

4.    protected against industrialization by limiting traps and requiring it be strictly an owner-operator business;

5.    improved stewardship by creating local management units (zones) that were ecologically-distinct, with elected fisherman representatives.

So how do we persuade federal fisheries management to let Maine and its fishermen rebuild its fisheries?

It looks like it’s going to be the same way organic farmers managed to start changing the ineffective management of our land-based food supply:  the hard way. By requiring fishing be done in ecologically-sound ways locally, by selling our catch locally whenever we can… and by fighting like the devil to change a management system based on ecologically unsound practices and totally out of whack with sustainability.

We at Penobscot East are part of the Downeast Initiative (DEI), a major campaign to bring back cod, haddock and flounders to our coastal waters again, the same way organic farmers are bringing back local food supplies. Port Clyde, the eastern-most community still left with groundfishermen that the feds still allow to fish, is now starting to sell their fish locally through a co-op to try to stay alive.

But Maine has already been cut out of its sea fisheries. There are only a small handful of federally permitted groundfishermen left in the whole state, and none have survived from east of Vinalhaven to Canada.  Our next hurdle is to persuade federal managers to let us use an area with depleted groundfish stocks to demonstrate that rational management can actually be used to create more sustainable fisheries than just the lobster fishery.

We need a really badly depleted area with very few groundfish … like all of coastal Maine between Boothbay and Canada! NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] has documented that area as depleted for 12 straight years!

We’re going to need your help because our effort is a grassroots, uphill effort. But with your support and a lot of hard work, we can rebuild those stocks of fish and, at the same time, rebuild coastal ecosystems and use them sustainably for the benefit of us all!

Fishing and agriculture have lots to learn from each other, about self-management and about food distribution and marketing.  We, the ocean version of the local food movement on land, are ready to begin.

So when you hear the words Downeast Initiative, or Area Management for Groundfish, or Penobscot East Resource Center – know these are kindred spirits who need your support.

Q & A

Asked what can be done about draggers, Ames responded that ground rules can prevent them from getting into sensitive areas, such as spawning and nursery grounds along the coastal shelf.  “But that process needs to involve fishermen from all the fisheries in the area, because we’re hunting for solutions, not heads,” said Ames, adding that dragging is “the easiest way to catch a fish—but it can’t go on the way it is today. We’re pushing for change on the coastal shelf where critical areas are found.  I’m convinced we can bring fisheries back.”

Regarding midwater trawling, Ames called this “the most efficient fish-catching method developed on the planet”—so efficient that the 27 trawlers in the Gulf of Maine, each capable of catching a million pounds of fish daily, can easily disrupt species such as herring on the coastal shelf.  “Site-specific spawners don’t come back once disturbed,” he noted.  Ames is part of a group called CHOIR (the Coalition for Atlantic Herring’s Orderly Informed and Responsible Long-term Development) that is outspoken about midwater trawlers.  “Even the allowed 5% bycatch can ruin nursery areas,” he said. The technology might be “ok farther out, but not along the shore.  We feel that area management is the key” to controlling the problem.  The federal level management system should include “distinct, defined areas managed as part of its approach.”

Likewise, regarding otter trawling, Ames said that 70% of an area that had been closed to this fishing method for 10 years had still not recovered.

Asked who’s eating all of the Gulf of Maine herring, Ames replied that most goes to lobster fishing, an industry that “has struggled in the last 10 years to industrialize. The  trap limit diffused that.”

About red tide, Ames said that “cleaning rivers as we continue to do helps” but red tide occurs naturally, and the reason is poorly understood. And about invasive species, he noted that their best chance of overtaking an area occurs when populations of native species are reduced or absent. Large numbers of natives help control them.  “We hope to get enough resurgence of native species to maintain their populations.”

Alewives, Ames said in answer to another question, “have resurfaced in the Penobscot River in the past 10 to 15 years,” after one dam was removed from the river. “Alewives came back strongly in one stream. About five years later, we started seeing fingerling cod, then one-year, two-year, three-, four-, five-, six-year-old cod.  This matched the historical finding that they co-migrated either with alewives or herring. That’s one reason why we support removing additional dams on the Penobscot.  It will make enormous changes downstream for us.”

Ames was asked, “Why was the water temperature in Penobscot Bay only in the 50s this summer?” and the catch was good. As global warming melted Arctic ice, eastern Maine—which gets a small part of the Labrador Current, has gotten colder. Cooler waters are “good for us now,” he conceded, increasing fish populations; but eventually warmer waters may be a problem once the Arctic ice has melted.

Citizens and consumers can help Maine fisheries by letting legislators know of their concern and support for local fisheries groups, and passing the message that  “our technology needs to be constrained.”  Local seafood marketing has virtually disappeared from our coast. Those connections can be started again by:  (a) asking your grocer to stock locally-caught seafood;  (b) inviting fishermen or local dealers to include part of their catch in local farmers’ markets; (c) Seafood can often be bought directly from local fishermen at the dock where the fishing vessel lands, but you have to either be there or have other arrangements. “The easternmost ground fishing boats left are in Port Clyde,” said Ames, where “conscientious fishermen need good outlets.”  Contact them to make arrangements for getting locally-caught seafood in your area.  Russell Libby suggested that a community might buy a quota for a young fisherman and connect the fisherman with local chefs.

For more on sustainable fisheries, visit www.penobscoteast.org.

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