WINTER HARBOR — Commercial fishing is one of Maine’s oldest industries. It is also facing rapid adjustments based on environmental changes and emerging technologies.
More than 100 Downeast area high school students gathered at the Schoodic Institute last week as part of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program to learn about these changes.
The event was the first of four “cohort” days for the program, in which students from the participating high schools meet one another, hear from industry leaders and begin shaping projects they will work on during the coming school year.
“This brings in kids from all these different communities and they get to know each other work together,” said Mike Thalhauser, a fisheries science and leadership advisor with the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.
The Eastern Maine Skippers Program started in 2012. Since then it has expanded to over 120 students and nine schools. New this year is Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, which has eight students participating.
“The students will spend the next couple of months figuring out what they want to work on for the year,” said Sumner science teacher Morgan Forni, who is supervising the program at the school. “There’s a really broad range of interests for the students.
The theme for this year is technology. Over the course of the year students will look at how technology contributes to a safe and healthy fishing industry, to sustainable fishing practices, to a better future understanding of fisheries and to a thriving local fisheries economy.
In addition to the cohort meetings, participating students work on individual or group projects based on applying technology to a safe and sustainable fishing industry.
“When the program started, it was designed to bring those fishing communities into the classroom, and the classroom to those communities,” said Christina Fifield, program coordinator for the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. “Get them to think outside the box. Now we have kids who want to be mechanics, clammers, who want to look at tidal aquaculture and tidal power. So it is really open to any marine-related activity.”
The event began with a keynote address from Captain Tim Rider of the Eliot-based FV Finlander and a series of team-building exercises. After that, the students participated in four short workshops on aquaculture, sustainable fishing, safety and creating a healthy fishing industry.
In one class, Rider discussed how environmental changes are affecting the commercial fishing industry in Maine.
“The Gulfstream has a lot to do with what kind of fish come into the Gulf of Maine. As it warms up all of those warm-water species, like your black sea bass and your squid, expand their range from the south,” said Rider. “And you don’t just see this on the water. You’re getting storms here that have hurricane-force winds fueled by that warmer ocean water.”
Tom Duym, a fisheries education specialist with the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, and Rebecca Wiel, a research coordinator with the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety, gave a presentation on designing improved safety equipment for lobstermen. There the students, many of whom have already worked on commercial fishing vessels, learned about designing new personal flotation devices and how to train for getting caught in fishing gear and thrown overboard.
For the students, the classes offered an opportunity to begin thinking about the future of the industry and how their ideas will affect the future.
“With so many environmental changes, these kids are going to be dealing with issues that other fishermen, other people in the fishing industry didn’t,” Thalhauser said. “So hopefully this begins to spark some ideas in them.”