Maine fishermen bank their futures on permits

Posted July 20, 2009, at 8:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Much of the fish population along Maine’s coast has disappeared. Efforts are under way to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to the state’s fishermen.

Conservation groups and the state have launched separate programs to buy commercial fishing permits so that when fish stocks recover off the Maine coast, fishermen will be able catch them.

The three initiatives will bank federal fishing permits for use by Maine fishermen. The aim is to improve the health of the fish stocks and keep the centuries-old fishing tradition alive in the small ports that pepper the state’s long and rugged coastline.

Much of the permit-banking effort is focused on eastern Maine, where the fishing fleet — small boats that go on day trips — has all but disappeared. These days, not a single boat in the eastern region actively fishes for cod, hake, flounder and other groundfish.

Dwight Carver, one of the participants in the programs, comes from a long line of fishermen on Beals Island. Locals, he said, used to catch groundfish three or four months of the year to supplement their lobster fishing income.

Those days are over, but maybe not forever. The program preserves an opportunity for the next generation of fishermen to head out to sea to fish.

“If there would be any kind of fishery so the guys could diversify a little bit and have some other way of making a living other than just out of a lobster trap, it’d be sad if nobody had a right to go,” he said.

The fishing fleet across New England has shrunk in recent years as fishermen contend with declining fish populations and regulations that severely limit how often and where they can fish.

Under the current system, fishermen can buy and sell federal fishing permits allowing them to fish in New England waters. When the fishing populations declined, most eastern Maine fishermen sold their permits to other boat owners or in government-funded buybacks, or lost their right to fish because they stopped fishing. Many of the permits left the state.

The new programs in Maine aim to keep some of those permits — and the fishing rights that go with them — in the state.

Three groups — The Nature Conservancy, the Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center — have purchased fishing permits from two Maine fishermen. The details have yet to be worked out, but plans call for making the permits available to half a dozen or more fishermen in midcoast and eastern Maine for research that the groups hope will help rebuild the fish populations.

It’s the first time permit-banking has been tried in Maine, they say, but similar programs have been attempted in other states, including Massachusetts.

In a separate program, the state Department of Marine Resources has received a $1 million federal appropriation to be used for more permit banking. The state program will take a look at fishermen along the entire coast and not focus on any one region in particular, said Commissioner George Lapointe.

In time, the goal is for fish populations to rebound and for fishermen to catch them commercially — not solely in the name of research. Besides helping fishermen, the program will help small fishing communities that now rely almost solely on lobsters, said Aaron Dority, of the Penobscot East Resource Center.

“The fact is no matter where you live, and no matter what you’re fishing for, the only way that you as a fisherman can survive in the long term is to have a diversity of fisheries,” he said.

Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation fisherman from Swan’s Island, will also be fishing as part of the program. As a young man, he worked on boats that harvested groundfish, scallops, shrimp, urchins and lobsters. Nowadays, lobster is about all that anybody goes after.

“This is my only opportunity to actually be able to go fish,” Joyce said. “The current system is set up primarily for large corporate boats.”

Fishing permits don’t come cheap. The conservation groups aren’t saying how much they’re paying for the two in their programs. In general, permits in New England have been selling for $100,0000 to $500,000 depending on the boat and its catch history.

But the price could be well worth it if the research helps improve the health of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. Anything that might strengthen Maine’s fishing communities is worth a shot, Carver said.

“The way they’ve regulated the business, it’s put eastern Maine off the map,” Carver said. “We no longer exist in the eyes of the federal government, which is a shame.”

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