Fish on Friday

By Philip Conkling | Mar 01, 2012

Once a year for the past 36 years, in case you missed it, the Samoset Resort in Rockport has hosted the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, a three-day event complete with panels on every imaginable marine topic and a trade show represented by every diesel engine manufacturer on the continent.

Back in its earlier days, the Maine Fishermen’s Forum was a modest affair. A couple of hundred fishermen showed up and spent most of their time trading stories at the bar downstairs. But now that several thousand attendees show up for the event, including governors, senators, representatives and the head of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), even the fishermen take the event seriously. This year the event begins Friday, March 2, and lasts through Sunday morning.

If you are not a commercial fisherman, and most of us are not, you might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. What do Maine’s fisheries have to do with your life, you ask? Simple question, complicated answer.

To begin with, when you think of commercial fishing, you need to consider all its attendant businesses, including boat-building, trap-making, rope-selling, net-mending, and engine maintenance, not to mention the annual sales of GPS units, chart plotters, color sonar displays, depth sounders, survival suits, life rafts and other equipment with which every commercial fishing vessel needs to be equipped. Then add to that a host of insurance, accounting and admiralty law services, which most fishing enterprises also now require. Ah the simple life! That’s a big slice of coastal business.

We recently learned that last year’s lobster harvest was worth more than $330 million to Maine fishermen, which with the economists’ standard three-to-one multiplier effect, yields more than a billion dollars of economic activity for this one fishery in a relatively impoverished state. So it’s useful for all of us to pay attention to what’s happening in and on the water.

People also show up at the Forum because commercial fishing still defines the culture along the Maine coast to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in America outside of Alaska. In most of the rest of America, commercial fishing has been relegated to the peripheries of coastal development, poor cousins to tourism and second home development. Two states have even banned commercial fishing with nets at the behest of strong recreational fishing lobbyists, who take politicians to fishing derbies and point out how much money gets spent on boats and tackle and well-maintained marinas, in contrast to the messy and odoriferous chaos of most commercial wharves. But if you want to see what the real deal is, what intact fishing communities look like, you come to Maine. And if you are really invested, you come to the Forum to drink it in (in some cases, literally).

There is another dimension of attendance at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum that has also grown during the past decade –- the presence of marine conservation organizations. Marine conservationists show up because more and more Americans want their products to be produced in an environmentally sustainable way, whether those products are iPhones and iPads from Chinese factories or swordfish and tuna from the Gulf of Maine. Because, overfishing for the iconic New England cod has been the national poster child for the failure of fisheries conservation and because People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has targeted the boiling of live lobsters as cruel and unusual and because the Humane Society is deeply concerned about whale entanglement in fishing gear; a rich array of activists now show up in droves from all around the country.

When Walmart announced recently the company will require that all the seafood it sells anywhere in the world be harvested sustainably, you know the world has changed. And if you think this won’t make any difference, consider that Walmart is the largest single wholesaler of Maine lobsters in the country.

Parenthetically, I am happy to report that the Island Institute has long been a fixture at the annual forums, although in the early days of attendance, fishermen would demand to know, not so politely, who invited you to our show? But after national environmental organizations began parachuting in, many fishermen figured it was better to bear the ills they knew, than risk others they knew not of.

Aside from well organized environmentalists “from away,” there are plenty of challenges confronting Maine’s commercial fishing industry – continued reductions in cod quotas will cripple some of the remaining ground fishing boats and just last week regulators imposed an early closure of the winter shrimp fishery due to a cyclical downturn. Nevertheless, there are also some notable bright spots. Lobster landings have never been higher. Never, ever. More than 100 million pounds were landed last year, fully five times as much as two decades ago. Maine’s clam harvests also continue to grow, primarily as a result of clam diggers agreeing to seed town clam flats to keep themselves in business, a far cry from the “tragedy of the commons,” the phrase that many activists have used to describe the depredations of the fishing industry. All told, the value Maine’s seafood landing topped $425 million last year, which is, as they say, a lot of clams.

More than 20 years ago, a wise old lobster industry leader warned me of the need to strike a balance between the number of working vessels and the number of pleasure craft in our harbors in order to keep Maine, Maine.

“You know a harbor is in trouble,” he told me, “when you come down over the hill and see more sailboat masts than VHF antennas.”

His rule of thumb does not work everywhere, but in the aggregate, we all need to remind ourselves that the smell of salted herring and the sounds of diesel engines roaring to life before dawn are the sights and sounds of a working coast. We are lucky to share a coast where some of us have the precious opportunity of maintaining an industrious, independent way of life, while others launch elegant yachts from Maine’s legendary boat building yards that together define the Maine coast character.

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