ADDISON, Maine — The hum of the outboard motor provided background music as Capt. Paul Ferriero slid his 16-foot boat through the salt marshes of the Pleasant River this week.
A lifelong fisherman, Ferriero offers a two-hour salt marsh tour on the Pleasant River to boost what he makes catching lobster.
The trip is quite magical: no humans, no sign of civilization, no interruptions save the call of kingfishers or the shout of eagles. It is a transitional trip — a meeting of the aquatic and terrestrial.
“This is such a treat for me,” passenger Jack Ayers said.
Even Ferriero said the trip was recreational for him since he spends most of his time lobstering.
But lobster fishing doesn’t pay all the bills, and Ferriero, like many lobster fishermen, has had to diversify. He moves yachts and offers tours, mostly on the open sea, showing tourists what lobster fishing is all about.
The tours he offers up the Pleasant River show a different side of the coast — the raw wilderness and wondrous ecosystem that is contained in a salt marsh.
On this summer afternoon, Rosalind Ayers and her husband, Jack Ayers, of Milbridge are on board for the journey from Addison to Columbia Falls.
The Ayers call themselves “splitters,” meaning they split their retirement time between Maine and South Carolina.
Avid sailors, the couple said this was their first trip up the Pleasant River.
“Maine is totally different from the water,” Rosalind Ayers said, letting the breeze wash over her face. Referring to the Addison Bridge, she said, “I’ve been over that bridge 1,000 times and it looks completely different from here.”
The grasses in the marsh are a dozen different shades of green — from a bright lime to a slivery blue — and are the very reason these shores were settled. When farmers first arrived Down East, the grasses were harvested to feed livestock.
Salt marshes are coastal wetlands rich in marine life, Ferriero said.
They are sometimes called tidal marshes, because they occur in the zone between low and high tides. Salt marshes provide nursery areas for fish, shellfish and crustaceans. These plants have extensive root systems that enable them to withstand brief storm surges, buffering the impact on upland areas, according to the Encyclope-dia of Earth.
Salt marshes also act as filters. Tidal creeks meander through the marshes transporting valuable nutrients as well as pollutants from upland development. The marshes can absorb or trap some of these pollutants, reducing the pollutant load entering estuaries. Salt marshes also prevent sediments from washing offshore, often cre-ating more land on which salt marshes can grow.
As the boat glided softly through the marsh, Ferriero said the whole river valley is listed in resource protection. The waters teem with alewives and smelt, and there still are wild Atlantic salmon. Passengers often can see deer, coyote, osprey, kingfishers and moose.
“The eagles have had a tremendous year,” Ferriero said, and no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the Ayerses were treated to an adult eagle sitting sentinel atop a tall pine.
Other calls got their attention and suddenly a pair of immature eagles — each 3 feet tall — were spotted nearby. All three eagles posed for the visitors; cameras were readied, pictures captured.
Then the boat fell quiet, each passenger enjoying the beauty, the sounds, the salty smell.
“This is a very intimate experience,” Ferriero said.
Ferriero is a seaman. He started earning his living from the Atlantic Ocean when he became a clam digger at age 11. Now 57, he has been an urchin diver, a scalloper and a lobster fisherman.
It’s hard, unforgiving work. Ferriero said he has “used up” his body. This is the third year he has offered tours to supplement his fishing income. He also digs clams and worms and hires his truck and trailer out to move yachts.
“Everyone is stretched to the max,” Ferriero said. He said there is tension in the lobster fishing community Down East, but nothing like the levels in midcoast Maine, where territorial and other disputes have resulted in a shooting on a dock, boats sabotaged and sunk, and hundreds of traps cut.
With the boat price for lobster reaching as low as $2.50 a pound this summer, lobstermen are struggling, Ferriero said. The industry is in such straits that Gov. John Baldacci appointed an eight-member task force on the economic sustainability of Maine’s lobster industry in the wake of the sudden collapse of the lobster boat price last October.
Boat prices last year were the lowest annual average in Maine since 2002, and combined with sharp rises just last year in operating costs, lobstermen have faced trying times.
The industry attributed the sudden drop to many factors, all linked to the global economy. Because frozen, processed lobster is purchased by cruise ships and casinos, the pullback on luxury goods spending by consumers decreased demand.
That situation was compounded by limited credit availability that shut down major Canadian processors, which purchase a large percentage of Maine’s lobster harvest.
“There are so many more lobstermen now than just 10 years ago,” he said. As more compete for the same resource, they buy bigger boats, put in more traps and invest in more expensive equipment.
“Can you imagine the payments on a $300,000 lobster boat?” Ferriero said. “Plenty of the boats [currently in use] could be taken back by the banks but they don’t want them. What are they going to do with them?”
Diversification becomes a way to survive, he said.
Gary Edwards of the Maine Seafood Alliance said, “I know a lot of lobstermen and shell fishermen who gravitate to whatever is paying at that time. It happens a lot Down East.
“One time I was trying to buy some fresh clams in Milbridge and the store owner said he couldn’t get any. When I asked why not, he said all the clammers were out picking blueberries,” Edwards said.
But for two hours on a summer afternoon, the global economy, low lobster prices and the recession were forgotten.
The 10-mile round trip came to a close too soon. The Ayerses disembarked, telling Ferriero what a splendid journey it was. “It was a wonderful, relaxing trip,” Jack Ayers said. “We really got away from it al0
Pleasant River Boat Tours can be reached at 598-6993 or www.pleasantriverboattours.com.