A Semi-Annual Publication of Manomet

Downeast Partnerships
By: David McGlinchey

Downeast Fisheries Partnerships
Photo: Shelly Tallack Caporossi

In the 1970s, Dwight Carver began his fishing career out of Beals and Jonesport, neighboring towns in the far eastern reaches of Maine.

That area – known as 'Downeast' – is inextricably tied to the Gulf of Maine. Like many of his neighbors, Carver built a life catching and selling groundfish. Those fish – like cod, haddock and flounder – were plentiful enough to support many communities on the ruggedly beautiful coast.

But in 1998, Carver sold his last groundfish.

"Myself and one other guy went gillnetting that summer," he said, referring to the fishing method in which a net is set near the ocean bottom and fish that are too big to swim through the mesh are caught by their gills. "That was the last year we commercially sold any groundfish. Since then, basically, the groundfish fishery has been non-existent. Previous to that it was a real nice fishery."

Cod landings in the Gulf of Maine, for example, have dropped by 90 percent over the past 150 years. Virtually no cod have been caught in eastern Maine for more than two decades.

With that decline, the industry and the towns of Downeast Maine have suffered. In June, the Boston Globe reported that the number of federally licensed groundfishing boats in the northeastern United States had fallen from 1,019 in 2001 to a meager 344 in 2011.


Fishermen in Downeast Maine are now focused entirely on lobstering. Photo: Haley Jordan

"At the height of it there were a dozen to 15 boats that were doing it, back in the 80s and early 90s," Carver said of his own community. "If there were a dozen boats that were doing it you're talking three to four families represented in each boat. Plus what is happening dockside, with the weighing and trucking gone. With that disappearing, of course it would have an impact. Basically, everybody now is completely dependent on lobster."

The problem is complex. The fishing industry faults federal management of the resource. One popular bumper sticker reads, "National Marine Fisheries Service: Destroying Fishermen and Their Communities Since 1976." But the groundfish have also lost much of their food resource. Populations of their preybase, like alewives and herring, have been stunted by dams that block their paths upstream to breeding grounds.

"We've realized that this is a really complex and multi-scaled problem," said Robin Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, Maine. "To fix this we need to work on everything from elementary school education on through to national policy. That can only be done by a partnership."

To build a coalition that could address these myriad challenges, Penobscot East, the Downeast Salmon Federation and the Manomet Center formed the new Downeast Fisheries Partnership. Manomet's Anne Hayden is the coordinator of the Partnership.

Arctic Researcher

A scientist weighs a hake as part of an effort to monitor groundfish stocks.
Photo: Eric Cardenas

"We need a range of groups, using a range of strategies – from economic growth, conservation, education and community development – all pulling together to make headway on this issue," Hayden said.

According to Dwayne Shaw, the executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, many different groups have been thinking about fisheries restoration, but they have lacked the ability to coordinate their work. He said that Hayden and the umbrella organization of the Partnership will provide a crucial connection "among the restoration practitioners in this region."

"The DFP will help us to make sure our efforts are coordinated and have higher impact to recover fisheries," Shaw said. "It is important to think and act holistically."

Mountain Range

Alewives are forage fish for groundfish like cod and haddock. Photo: Anne Hayden

The Partnership is initially working to educate the next generation on the potential and challenges of fisheries.

"The first thing we can do is bring attention to the incredible asset that fisheries could be to eastern Maine and have people think of fisheries as an opportunity instead of something they take for granted or something that has no future," Alden said.

The Partnership is also working to restore habitat for the sea-run prey fish by removing dams and tide gates.

"I don't see groundfish coming back here until there's some feed that would have them migrate in this direction," said Carver, who also serves on the board of Penobscot East. "I don't see the herring stock that I used to see."

A greater challenge, perhaps, is the Partnership's vision of a fishery that is managed jointly by federal authorities and the local fishing industry.

"Our main goal is to work toward co-management of these resources," Alden said. "What fishermen know needs to be integrated into decision making."

According to Hayden, ensuring a role for fishermen is the key to the Partnership's success.

"They know the ecosystem better than anyone and can take responsibility, along with fisheries managers, for the future of the fishery and the ecosystem," she said.

Arctic Researcher

The East Machias Aquatic Research Center is a hatchery, laboratory and classroom run by the
Downeast Salmon Federation. Photo: Haley Jordan

The challenges are significant. As the groundfish industry dried up, the related infrastructure withered as well. Dock facilities, distribution networks and even ice production will need to be re-established.

Looming over any conservation effort is the uncertainty of climate change. Climate impacts are altering the ecology of the Gulf of Maine and no one knows exactly which species will win out. Hayden said that restoring the ecosystem and improving fisheries management will benefit communities, no matter what fish are being caught.

Mountain Range

Anne Hayden, coordinator of the Downeast Fisheries Partnership. Photo: Rosamond Hayden

"It's not about a particular fishery," she said. "Climate change, changing markets and uncertainty about the effect of fisheries restoration activities on the ecosystem make it difficult to predict what fish – or how much fish – fishermen will be catching in eastern Maine in 10 or 20 years. What we're about is empowering local communities to sustainably manage their resources, whatever they might be."

According to Shaw, "linking technology and science with real time local knowledge" will allow the fisheries management to respond to a changing ecosystem. But that local empowerment will depend greatly on local willingness. Alden said that overcoming years of management frustration will require a lot of trust-building and direct conversations.

"Fishermen have had such bad experiences with management for so long, there is such disillusionment," Alden said. "But the idea that it is actually possible, that's a new idea. It is transformative. It's not an advisory role, it is a co-management process. A true engagement."

Alden said that local leadership in fisheries management is seen as more important than ever because science is showing that "marine ecosystems are much more localized than anyone ever dreamed."

Carver agreed on the need for local knowledge in the management process. He also expressed hope that the fishing community would buy into the approach.

"If there's ever going to be anything that's helpful, it's co-management," Carver said. "If it could be co-managed so that we could have some input as to how things are harvested, I think we could do a much better job than what has been done previous to this. Nobody here wants to annihilate the fishery. People here care; it's our livelihood."

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