STONINGTON, Maine — Penobscot East Resource Center is gearing up for the start of its Sentinel Fishery research project, which seeks to develop information about the groundfish stocks in eastern Maine.
The program is the next step in the organization’s efforts to develop a stable fishing economy in the region, according to Robin Alden, the center’s executive director.
“This research is essential if we are ever going to restore this highly productive region of the Gulf of Maine,” Alden said Friday.
While some government data on populations of groundfish such as cod, pollock and flounder are available from state and federal trawling surveys, those surveys have been limited, Alden said. One of the goals of the project is to add to that information about the groundfish in the region.
The center also plans to sell the fish caught during the research to area residents through a community-supported fishery program it hopes will help re-establish the market as the fish stocks recover.
About 20 years ago in the area from the Penobscot Bay islands to the Canadian border, the groundfish fishery began to decline until it disappeared completely, Alden said. But while groundfish have rebounded in other areas in New England, the groundfish stocks have not recovered in that region of Down East Maine. With the loss of the fishery, the area lost its groundfishermen as well.
“That has left fishermen in this region perilously dependent upon one fishery, lobster,” Alden said.
That dependency is a “hidden fragility” in the coastal economy, she said. The project is the next step in the center’s ongoing effort to address that issue.
Federal permits are required to fish for groundfish, and the center purchased one last year as part of an effort to develop a groundfish permit bank. Under new federal regulations, the permit allows the center to catch up to 120,000 pounds of groundfish, including cod, flounder, cusk, pollock and redfish, as part of the Sentinel project this year.
“This is a community access project,” Alden said. “We want to continue to obtain these permits so those rights can be held in trust and made available to people in this area when the fish come back.”
Two local fishermen will take time off from lobstering to fish by hook as part of the project. They will follow a plan developed by Yong Chen from the University of Maine working with the state Department of Marine Resources to ensure that the data collected will be usable in future years.
Federal regulations require strict monitoring to ensure the project does not exceed its quotas. There will be dockside monitors as well as trained observers on board boats to record information about the fish caught.
“We’ll be recording where the fish are caught, the species, size, the state they’re in, and we’ll also be collecting genetic information too,” Alden said.
The center hopes to be ready to begin by the start of the groundfishing season on May 1.
Generating that information is crucial in the recovery of the fishery, Alden said.
For it to be useful, data will need to be collected over time. The center already is seeking federal funding to continue the project in 2011.
“It’s really exciting to have the chance to have people here involved in figuring this out,” Alden said. “This delivers hope in the coastal fishing economy that it is possible to have a stable coastal fishery again and that we can bring the fish back.”
As a direct result of the research project, the center plans to market the fish caught through a groundfish community-supported fishery, similar to the shrimp community-supported fishery it ran last year. Although the center hopes to be able to provide a supply of groundfish during May and June, Alden cautioned that this is a pi-lot project and not an established fishery. The center may not always be sure when and what kind of fish will be available.
“We really aren’t sure,” she said. “It may be that we wind up calling customers when the fish are available.”
Still, she said, there has been a great deal of interest in the project and in the groundfish community-supported fishery. Anyone interested in signing up to participate in the community-supported fishery may call the center at 376-2708.