WINTER HARBOR — What’s bugging people in the fishing industry in your town? How do you find out? What can you do about it?
More than 100 students from the Downeast eight high schools that participate in the Eastern Maine Skippers program travelled to the Schoodic Institute last week to learn how to answer those questions.
The students were gathered at the first of four “full cohort events” planned for the current school year — as much to give them the opportunity to meet one another as to get a start on acquiring the problem-solving skills that can help keep the fisheries, and fishing industry, in their communities sustainable.
After a keynote address from Lubec elver harvester and fisheries activist Julie Keene and some “team building” exercises, the students split into eight groups. Each then met with a panel of fisheries experts to hear about the local issues that worried them. Afterwards, they talked about issues facing their own communities. Journalists who cover Maine’s fisheries served as moderators for each group.
The students came from high schools on the remote offshore islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven, the less remote islands that are home to Deer Isle-Stonington and Mount Desert Island high school and the mainland schools George Stevens Academy, Sumner Memorial Narraguagus and Jonesport-Beals high schools. Many of the students come from multi-generational fishing families.”
“I’ve been fishing since I was a kid,” a burly youngster from Jonesport-Beals said at the start of one of the discussions.
The panelists ran the gamut from Dennis Damon, a former state legislator and longtime fisherman, to seaweed harvester and writer Larch Hansen, and a number of lobster harvesters, scientists and fisheries resource specialists.
The journalist moderators included editors from several fisheries trade publications and area newspapers — writers who report on fisheries issues — and even a documentary film maker.
One panel, devoted to issues confronting the fishing industry in the Ellsworth region, included a professional saltwater fishing guide, a shellfish dealer and a marine biologist who works on river herring restoration issues.
Guide Pete Douvarjo talked about the impact of a scarcity of striped bass in and around Penobscot Bay had on his business. A few years ago, he said, stripers were so few and far between that he had to turn to fresh water guiding to earn a living.
Shellfish trader Mike Danforth said the biggest problem he confronted was a shortage of people with the interest and skills to pick lobsters and shuck clams.
Sarah Madronal, a fisheries biologist for the Downeast Salmon Federation, demonstrated and old fashioned beach seine harvesters once used to net herring returning to Maine in the spring. Once caught, the herring were used as lobster bait.
River herring are scarce now, and the beach seine has just about disappeared from Maine waters.
The bait issue piqued the attention of students from the Jonesport-Beals area, all of whom fish.
Bait has tripled in cost over the past few years, according to Kacey Crowley, who fishes and also works on a bait truck when he’s not in school. Dealers save the best bait for big-time, offshore fishermen leaving only poor quality stuff for harvesters with small boats and small operations.
In the future, the Eastern Maine Skippers students will have a chance to study local issues like that and, perhaps, find ways to address them.