PORT CLYDE, Maine — A group of local fishermen has discovered that a way to do work sustainably also may be what keeps them financially afloat in an era of new, tighter federal regulations and quotas.
A dozen commercial fishermen in Port Clyde are allowed to catch fewer fish than ever, but by processing and selling their own catches, the fishermen say they are making more money with less product. And if the fishermen are getting the right price for their work, they don’t have to overfish — which was why the Port Clyde Fresh Catch fishing cooperative was founded in the first place.
“There is only so much pie, and only so many boats can get a slice of it,” Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby, a co-op member, said recently. “We don’t need a bigger piece of pie — we can get a better price.”
Brothers Glen, 53, and Gary Libby, 51, used to catch their fish and bring them to an auction in Portland. There, the Libby brothers and other Port Clyde fishermen felt they had to take whatever prices they could get.
“We had no connection for what [price] we got for our fish and what we needed to get for our fish,” Glen Libby said.
That changed last year when they started the co-op.
Now the brothers fish, bring their catches to the dock, walk a few feet to the co-op’s processing plant and sell directly to their neighbors through farmers markets, community-supported fishery shares and individual orders. Leftover fish are brought to Portland for auction.
Glen Libby said this new way of doing business brings the fishermen prices that are two to three times higher than what they would have received at auction — and some people involved say that estimate is conservative.
The fishermen can use the extra cash. The co-op expects increased costs this year due to the administration of a new quota system. Before, fishermen could fish a specific number of days each year for each type of fish. Effective May 1, fishermen may catch only a certain amount of fish — measured by weight — per year.
Diners also get a good deal. Selling the fish closer to the waters in which they were caught cuts up to two weeks off the time from boat to customer.
“It’s fresher,” Glen Libby said. “Sometimes the fish is literally taken off the boat, filleted and sold the same day. It’s the way we like to eat fish.”
But ultimately, it’s up to the customers whether the co-op model will survive.
“They can choose sustainability or the cheapest they can find,” Glen Libby said. He said the fish at supermarkets is often a jumble of European, South American, farm-raised and Maine catches.
The co-op, which has hired 20 people, is serving customers from all over, including Belfast and Eastport. Glen Libby said this is “sad” because it means their communities are fished-out.
“I think what separates us is that this group of fishermen is trying to make a better future,” said co-op fisherman Gerry Cushman. “We’re not raping the ocean of food.”
Glen Libby and his partners think this project is essential to the vitality of fish and of their town.
“It’s a lifeline. If this fails there will be no groundfish boats left in Port Clyde — they’ll be gone,” he said. “It has taken on incredible importance.”
The Island Institute has helped the fishermen learn how to market their product.
Jennifer Litteral, policy director of the Island Institute, said having orders to fill before the fishermen go out is as sustainable as it gets.
“You aren’t under that time constraint,” she said. “You can fish around the markets and send boats out.”
Litteral also thinks consumers must be part of the picture.
“This is a public resource — you and I own this. They are just fishing for it. We need to be part of this process,” she said. “It helps bring the public back into the picture, and we need to be there.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, agreed.
“I’m very impressed with what they’ve been able to do,” Pingree said in a phone interview Thursday.
For information, visit www.portclydefreshcatch.com or call 372-8065.