WINTER HARBOR, Maine — “It’s not a secret,” fisherman-scholar Ted Ames said Saturday night.
“There aren’t too many fishermen here anymore. There aren’t too many fish, either. About 5,000 square miles off the Maine coast no longer produces fish. Gone are the haddock, cod, white hake and halibut,” he said.
Ames was addressing a large crowd at the Schoodic Education and Research Center on the issue of Maine’s groundfishing industry and how to secure its future.
“It can’t happen overnight,” he said. “But we sincerely believe the stocks can be restored.”
Ames and Aaron Dority, director of the Downeast Groundfish Initiative, talked about the massive decline in Maine’s fishing fleet as fish populations have shrunk.
“From Boothbay Harbor to Canada, there are not enough fish to support a fishery,” Ames said. “It feels like you are talking to Dust Bowl farmers when you talk to fishermen today.”
In past centuries, Maine lobstermen would switch to groundfishing for three or four months a year to supplement their income.
There are now 40 to 50 active groundfishing permits in Maine, and most of them are in the Portland area.
“In 1960, Fishermen’s Bay produced more haddock than was landed in all of Maine in 2007,” Ames said. “That’s a reality check.”
He and Dority said they are lobbying to establish a fisheries management plan that includes a permit banking system.
“If we want locally caught, fresh fish at reasonable prices, this is what we must do,” Ames said.
Under the current permit system, fishermen can buy and sell federal fishing permits that allow them to fish in New England waters.
As fishing populations have declined, many Maine fishermen have sold their permits to other boat owners or in government-funded buybacks, or have lost their right to a permit because they stopped fishing.
Permit banking programs attempt to keep the permits in Maine.
Three groups — The Nature Conservancy, the Island Institute and Penobscot East Resource Center — have purchased fishing permits from two Maine fishermen. Ames and Dority said six fishermen would be leased fishing rights under those permits in a pilot project to test the waters off Maine’s coast and determine how much and where the fish are.
“As painful as management is, we need to find a way to know what is happening [in the fishery] locally,” Ames said. “In the old days it was an attitude of ‘clean ’em out and move on,’ and with today’s technology there isn’t a species on Earth that we can’t wipe out in three years.”
Dority said Maine’s fishermen caught 60 percent fewer fish in 2007 than in 1961. He said the permit allocation system allows those who caught the most fish to get permits to catch the most fish.
Dority said the six permits under the pilot project would be issued from Matinicus Island to Jonesport.
This is the first time permit banking has been tried in Maine, he said, but similar programs have been attempted in other states, including Massachusetts.
In general, permits in New England have been selling for $100,000 to $500,000 depending on the boat and its catch history.
Dority’s permit banking project is focused on eastern Maine, where the small, day-trip fishing fleet has all but disappeared.
“The big question is: Are there fish to catch and can we catch them?” Dority said. He said the six fishermen will use hooks and tub trawls only and will report where fish are caught so a management plan can be developed.
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 region in particular, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Dority said the goal of management is for fish stocks to rebound and for fishermen to catch them not just as part of a research project. This will help not just the fishermen themselves, but will help to rebound Maine’s small fishing communities that now rely almost solely on lobsters.
Part of that success will be local, direct marketing. Dority is helping organize consumer-supported fisheries, similar to consumer-supported agriculture used successfully on many Maine farms. A project in the Ellsworth area for shrimp last season began with 30 customers and swelled to 120. Another consumer-supported shrimp project as well as a new groundfish project will be in place this year.
“These are really successful and are getting people really excited,” Dority said. “The local fishermen themselves are saying they need this market.”