HARPSWELL, Maine — When Port Clyde fisherman Gary Libby started fishing in 1978, a good day at sea meant heading home with 6,000 pounds of fish on board. Today, a 21-hour trip nets anywhere from 1,000 pounds to 1,500 pounds — and he’s fishing far, far fewer days each year.
Randy Cushman, also of Port Clyde, remembers his biggest trip ever, when he hauled in 11,000 pounds of codfish, back when Cushman was young and Port Clyde “was hoppin’.”
“We had the big fishing that you hear about,” Cushman said. “Real big. Too much. We stayed up for 48 hours straight. We only had 3 hot dogs to eat … that takes its toll on you, with two guys. You’re working. You’re busting your hump.”
Port Clyde, like other fishing towns up and down the Maine coast, has changed in the past few decades. Most significantly, with federal regulations and a depleted fishery, Maine’s groundfishing fleet has shrunk from 300 boats in the early 1990s to about 50 in 2013, according to Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a fishermen-led nonprofit that works to restore the fisheries and sustain Maine’s fishing communities.
But as valuable as the industry itself are stories such as Libby’s and Cushman’s. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association has preserved some of those fish tales through its Oral History Initiative, a multimedia presentation opening Wednesday at Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.
Funded in part by the Maine Humanities Council, the Island Institute and The Nature Conservancy, the narratives have been edited into 13 short videos, and Martens said the project may be expanded in the future.
Sharing the stories of longtime Maine fishermen and those who support them is one way to educate the public about the need to protect the fishery, and communities such as Port Clyde, which revolve around the struggling industry, Martens said.
“Most of the young guys just go about their own business, and they’re all about how much they can make, and they don’t worry about their neighbors as much,” Libby said in a 3 minute video featured as part of the exhibit. “We’ve lost a little bit of neighborly community — not all [though], because when my engine blew last week, Randy was fishing. He was on his first day of fishing, and he stopped his trip. He came, and he got me and towed me in. That’s what it used to be like.”
“Things in the ocean are changing, and they’re changing pretty rapidly,” Gerry Cushman of Port Clyde said. “And I worry about that for my son, if he chooses to go fishing, or even if he doesn’t choose to go fishing, I worry about the changes, and if mankind is making these changes, we’ve got to figure out how to stop them.”
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Harpswell Heritage Land Trust will celebrate the opening of the Oral History Initiative from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the trust’s office at 153 Harpswell Neck Road in Harpswell. The free event will include videos, audio and photographs, as well as remarks by Maine fishermen. The exhibit will then be on display at the trust from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 18-July 22.