High school students investigate viability of a flounder fishery in Maine

Liam Griffith, 14, worked with another student to mark locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. He is one of 45 students participating in the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.
Liam Griffith, 14, worked with another student to mark locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. He is one of 45 students participating in the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 10, 2013, at 5:11 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 10, 2013, at 7:28 p.m.
Todd West, the principal of Deer Isle-Stonington High School, and Carla Guenther, the fisheries science and leadership adviser at Penobscot East Resource Center, are leading students through a year-long project called the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.
Todd West, the principal of Deer Isle-Stonington High School, and Carla Guenther, the fisheries science and leadership adviser at Penobscot East Resource Center, are leading students through a year-long project called the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. Buy Photo
Students from George Stevens Academy marked locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. They are among the 45 students who spent a day at Maine Maritime Academy as part of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.
Students from George Stevens Academy marked locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. They are among the 45 students who spent a day at Maine Maritime Academy as part of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. Buy Photo
Students from George Stevens Academy marked locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. They are among the 45 students who spent a day at Maine Maritime Academy as part of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.
Students from George Stevens Academy marked locations where winter flounder had been caught on a nautical chart. They are among the 45 students who spent a day at Maine Maritime Academy as part of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. Buy Photo

CASTINE, Maine — Forty-five students from seven of Maine’s coastal high schools have been tasked with solving a unique challenge:

What do fishermen need to do to make winter flounder a viable fishery in Maine?

The students, some of whom are already fishermen and others who plan to be, are nearly halfway through a year-long course called the Eastern Maine Skippers Program created by educators from Deer Isle-Stonington High School and the Penobscot East Resource Center.

At the beginning of the year, the students were presented with a problem: Maine’s fishing economy is dangerously dependent on lobster, which accounts for 65 percent of the value of Maine’s catch, according to the Department of Marine Resources. The winter flounder, which is not fished commercially and has had a steady population in recent years, was suggested by teachers as an alternative. Now the students are working in four regional teams to find out if that new fishery has potential.

Along the way, they will need to design, build and field test their own fish traps, analyze data, apply to the state Department of Marine Resources for an exemption on a seasonal flounder fishing ban and present their findings to public officials.

In the 1980s, there was a vibrant groundfishery off the coast of Maine, which included winter flounder, according to Carla Guenther, the fisheries science and leadership advisor at the Penobscot East Resources Center. When the populations of such groundfish as cod and haddock declined, fishermen moved away from that industry. As a result, there is almost no one fishing for winter flounder today.

“I just want to be prepared,” said Deven Olsen, 18, a senior from Deer Isle-Stonington High School. He explained that there is no guarantee that the lobster fishery won’t decline in years to come.

“So if that happens, I could go into a different fishery,” he said.

Olsen is already a lobster fisherman. He has his own boat and fishes in the summer when school is not in session. When he graduates in June, he will fish full time.

That makes him exactly the type of student Todd West, the principal of Deer Isle-Stonington High School, and the other educators involved with the program, hope to reach.

“The ultimate goal would be to really try and use the local knowledge and local traditions and combine those with academic skills so that students could enter the fishery ready to be flexible and adaptive for whatever changes — whether they be ecological, economic or political — that the fishery is going to throw at them in the 21st century,” West said. “Things are changing and changing quickly.”

Whether or not these students go into flounder fishing is not the point. The goal is for them to come away from this course with the ability to think critically and proactively about the industry.

“We want to create a generation of fishermen who can talk the same language as the scientists and the politicians,” said Libby Rosemeier, the dean of students at George Stevens Academy, another school that is participating in the program.

“We’re going to help these guys become better advocates for themselves.”

On Monday, the students met at Maine Maritime Academy for a day of strategizing and planning.

After a presentation by a scientist from the Department of Marine Resources who has surveyed flounder in Maine, the students huddled over nautical charts of the areas where they fish and used the DMR’s data to mark the places where they were most likely to find flounder.

In the spring, the students will use the traps that they’ve built to fish for winter flounder. The traps need to be good at keeping lobster out and letting fish in, the opposite of the traps the students are used to fishing with.

“The trap designing is going well,” Liam Griffith, 14, reported during a lunch break at Maine Maritime Academy. Griffith is a freshman at Deer Isle-Stonington High School who hopes to be a lobster fisherman someday.

After sorting through the flounder data, the students came back together as a group to video conference with a pair of fishermen from North Carolina who have been experimenting with flounder trap designs. Those fishermen explained that their challenge has been keeping sea turtles and crabs out of the traps, while maximizing their catch.

Recognizing that these fishermen had faced similar obstacles to those that they are going to encounter, the students at Maine Maritime Academy had some questions.

“When you catch crabs and flounder together, do the crabs ever eat the flounder?” asked a student from Mount Desert Island High School.

The answer was “yes.”

After a question about what was used for bait, the fishermen responded that shrimp and menhaden worked well.

Currently there is a ban on fishing for groundfish, such as flounder, during the spring, when they are spawning. These students will have to apply for an exemption to the ban from the DMR advisory council so that they can fish during the school year.

For some of the teachers, the fact that these students have come together for this course is just as important as the skills they will take away from it.

Tom Duym, a marine trades teacher at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, explained that someday these teenagers will be the leading fishermen and women in the region and they may need to work together to advocate for their industry.

“I’m just excited that all of us are working together,” said Martha Garfield, director of college and vocational counseling at George Stevens Academy. “And it’s not a basketball game.”

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