ELLSWORTH — A grizzled lobsterman hauls traps onto the wharf as the sun sets slow and pink over the harbor. Fishing boats head home to unload catch as captains and sternmen young and old call back and forth in a Downeast Maine accent. Fresh-caught local seafood is featured at restaurants and markets.
Maine’s “blue economy” is worth over $1 billion annually, according to a 2018 Colby College report. It’s also a big draw for tourists and new seasonal and year-round residents. But their increasing presence may imperil a big part of what brought them to Maine: the working waterfront.
“There’s a critical connection between the ocean and Maine’s economy,” Island Institute Senior Community Development Officer Sam Belknap said, following the institute’s August 2021 publication, “The Critical Nature of Maine’s Working Waterfronts and Access to the Shore.”
The report’s main takeaway? “Without institutional support, high-level policy and programmatic coordination and sufficient funding to protect access, the future of Maine’s working waterfront is dire.”
The report was researched and written by Yarmouth and Tenants Harbor attorney Merritt T. Carey, who consults on fisheries and working waterfront-related issues. She traveled up and down the coast to talk to lobstermen, clammers, wormers, harbormasters, aquaculturists and others involved in the state’s commercial fishery. She also took a deep dive into relevant data.
“It 100 percent validated my intuition,” she said. “It was like, yeah, these problems are very real.”
The report outlines how a tight and pricey housing market, the lack of affordable housing in shorefront communities, climate change and a scattered approach by government and nonprofits to preserve working waterfronts and access all contribute to the problem.
Real estate sales increased 9.8 percent in 2020, after mainly stagnating since 2016, and are at the highest median sales price since recordkeeping began in 1998, according to the Association of Maine Realtors. And out-of-staters with deep pockets are quick to spend their dollars on shorefront properties.
But new property owners often close off shorefront access to clammers and wormers where former, long-term owners understood the importance of the commercial fishery to their communities and way of life.
Many fishermen, the report states, no longer have access to a working wharf and crowd recreational facilities that may not have the infrastructure needed.
“In a post-pandemic world with incredible pressure on Maine’s costal real estate, ensuring commercial access to the shore has never been more critical,” Carey writes. “Access to the shore disappears at an increasing rate. Once access points are gone, they do not come back.”
And climate change brings greater costs in maintaining working waterfronts and their infrastructure along with more regulations. Carey asks, what species will exist in the Gulf of Maine in 10, 20, 30 years? Whatever they may be, harvesting them will require infrastructure, markets and quotas.
“[Climate change] impacts on working waterfront may outpace all the drivers of change combined,” she warns.
Maine commercial fishermen are used to often-gloomy forecasts for their profession, whether from conservation measures, sustainability issues or legal battles. But the Island Institute’s report makes the case that without a comprehensive statewide strategy to preserve commercial waterfronts and public access to them, negative repercussions will continue to increase.
The report also points to some good work accomplished through state and nonprofit programs such as Land for Maine’s Future’s Working Waterfront Access Protection Program (WWAPP). Formed in 2008, the bond-funded program “essentially buys development rights from wharf owners, placing a restrictive easement on the property to ensure it will remain working waterfront in perpetuity,” Carey writes.
The program protected access at Davis Wharf in Tremont in 2009 and Stonington Lobster Cooperative in 2020 and has spent $6 million so far on 27 covenants to protect working waterfronts. It has also received $4 million in funding for the next four years.
But the application process is highly complex, Carey said. “Just for a working waterfront to organize themselves to go through that process, it’s not for the faint of heart.”
A second caveat, she noted in the report, is that “WWAPP is not adequately staffed to seek out projects in most at-risk locations, nor does the data for such a selection exist currently.”
And while 74 percent of all land trusts in Maine are in coastal counties, their focus is on securing and protecting Maine’s land for recreational use, not commercial.
Belknap pointed to what he sees as a “fundamental tension” between land trusts and organizations supporting working waterfronts, “which are being preserved to support what are, in many cases, private businesses.”
Where donors want to spend their philanthropic dollars is another question, Belknap said. But, he added, multiuse access for certain working waterfronts “can really bring together those organizations working to preserve public lands and those to support working waterfronts.”
Organizations like the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute provide support but don’t engage in oversight and strategic planning for working waterfront access issues.
“Protecting Maine’s working waterfront falls to individual wharf owners and a handful of entities that are not set up or funded for the role they often find themselves in,” Merritt states.
State-funded programs such as the Maine Department of Transportation’s Small Harbor Improvement Program, the Department of Agriculture’s Coastal Community Planning Grants and the Department of Marine Resources’ Shore and Harbor Planning Grants and Right of Discovery Grants all work with communities to improve and preserve working waterfronts.
But on a policy level, Carey holds, “protection of working waterfront is primarily left to municipalities … The make-up of town councils often has a great deal to do with whether a coastal community prioritizes its working waterfront and access.”
Further, “Taken together, these programs and the role of municipalities do not come close to providing the support necessary to protect Maine’s seafood/blue economy access/infrastructure.”