ELLSWORTH — As in many segments of American life, social media is playing a role in rising tensions between Maine’s most traditional fishery and the state’s growing aquaculture industry.
In recent months, a group called “Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage” has been active on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. The group identifies itself as an “organization of lobstermen, fishermen, and other citizens concerned about the rapid growth of aquaculture” in Maine.
Over the past few weeks, the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA) has posted a pair of professionally produced videos on Facebook aimed at showing Maine fish farmers in a positive light. The first approximately three-minute video features Canadian salmon farming giant Cooke Aquaculture. The second focuses on the husband and wife team of Josh and Shey Conover, who operate their small Marshall Cove Mussel Farm off Islesboro in Penobscot Bay.
The two videos are the initial offerings in a planned series called “The Faces of Maine’s Working Waterfront.”
According to the MAA, the videos “tell the stories of aquatic farmers in Maine, underscoring how aquaculture complements existing marine industries and works to diversify and strengthen our coastal economy.”
The fishing heritage group has posted its own videos and other social media content.
In a recent Facebook post, longtime Chebeague lobsterman Ernie Burgess is pictured aboard a lobster boat and quoted as saying that he has been “displaced by (aquaculture) leases from areas I fished for years.”
Another recent fishing heritage group post refers to bait shortages, potential whale-protection restrictions on fishing and lower landings this year and says, “Lobstermen have enough to worry about — losing bottom to large aquaculture leases shouldn’t be something they have to deal with.”
The first film released in the Maine Aquaculture Association series features Cooke Aquaculture Marketing Director Andrew Lively talking about the company’s Downeast farms as creating hundreds of jobs and producing “sustainable, healthy, local seafood.” According to the video, declining fisheries have driven commercial fishermen to leave the waterfront “in search of mill jobs” and quotes Cooke employee Dave Morang as saying that working for the company has given him the chance to return to the water and “live the American dream.”
The second video in the series features Islesboro lobsterman Josh Conover and his wife, Shey, who operate a mussel farm that currently employs four to five workers year-round and “helps to ensure jobs on the water for themselves and their two children for decades to come.”
The new Maine Aquaculture Association videos can be found in the video section of the MAA Facebook page.
According to Afton Hupper of the MAA, the video project is a continuation of work that the association has done “off and on” over the years. Farmers in the videos are chosen “to showcase the diversity of the sector and how we are just another part of Maine’s working waterfront.”
The Cooke video was filmed in August and the Marshall Cove video was filmed in October. Each one took about a day to film and there was no set script, just “a loosely structured set of interview questions.” Two more videos have already been filmed. One is scheduled to be released later this month, the other in January.
Hupper said production cost of the video program is “a moving target” and that the MAA is paying for them now “but also trying to raise some external funding.”
At its most recent annual meeting, the MAA board and general membership voted to increase association spending on communications.
For its campaign, the fisheries heritage group has enlisted a Portland-based public relations firm. The contact telephone number listed on the “Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage” Facebook page and website is the same as the telephone number listed for the Knight Canney Group, described on its website as “specializing in government and public relations, elections and events.”
Company principal Crystal Canney has been active working for a group opposed to a Department of Marine Resources lease for a large oyster farm off Mere Point in the town of Brunswick.
Earlier this year, the group led an unsuccessful effort to have DMR make significant changes to its aquaculture leasing regulations and to have those changes applied retroactively to the Mere Point application.