ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Nature Conservancy is expanding its presence in Maine’s embattled groundfishing industry.
For the past two fishing seasons, The Nature Conservancy has co-owned a commercial groundfishing permit that the organization and its partner, the Island Institute, have made available to local fishermen. A third organization, Penobscot East Resource Center, also owns a permit to allow fishermen in Maine to participate in the tightly regulated sector fishing for cod, flounder and other groundfish.
On Monday, officials at The Nature Conservancy announced that the organization had acquired a second fishing permit within the Port Clyde Community Groundfishing Sector, the cooperative of Maine-based groundfishing vessels.
Known as “permit banking,” the practice is one way that organizations and the state are working to keep alive the groundfishing tradition in Maine even as more fishermen decide to give up their permits. Decades of dwindling fish resources, stringent federal regulation and rising costs have virtually wiped out Maine’s once-robust groundfishing fleet, forcing many fishermen to focus more heavily on lobster or leave the industry altogether.
By purchasing the commercial fishing permits, which typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the organizations are aiming to preserve fishing rights in Maine for if and when groundfish populations recover. Many Maine permits in the past have been gobbled up by out-of-state boats.
At the same time, the permit banking program offers participating Maine fishermen a chance to potentially earn additional income while helping conduct research on building a sustainable fishery for groundfish, said Geoff Smith, marine program director in Maine for The Nature Conservancy.
About a dozen fishermen from the Port Clyde area have worked with The Nature Conservancy and the Island Institute so far.
“We’re excited to have a good group of fishermen to work with,” Smith said. “We hope this leads to more sustainable fishing practices and healthier fishing communities along the coast.”
Research is a major focus of the permit banking program in Maine. The three nonprofit organizations that hold permits make a portion of their quotas available to researchers trying to identify new gear or practices to make the fishery more sustainable.
Smith said the organization also offers shares of their quota to fishermen who agree to use newer gear that goes above and beyond federal requirements. For example, researchers have used the permit banking system to experiment with nets designed to allow juvenile cod and haddock to escape. Reducing the amount of bycatch in turn increases the value of the haul at the docks, Smith said.
“This permit will allow us to do more research and provide incentives for more fishermen to try new methods,” Smith said.
The Nature Conservancy purchased the permit from a Portland-based fisherman for an undisclosed price. The permit has a quota of 500,000 pounds of fish for this fishing year, which extends from May 2011 through April 2012.
“We found common ground around a strategy that we both believe in,” Vincent Balzano, a Saco-based fisherman working with The Nature Conservancy, said in a statement. “What matters most is that we have the same goal: To have as many fish in the ocean as we possibly can.”