Once again, there is good reason to be concerned about the future of Penobscot Bay. The ongoing lack of a regional approach to industrial development, a narrowing economic base, aging demographic trends and the shifting seas of global markets now conspire to pull apart what once was a coherent system.
In 1996, the Island Institute published “Penobscot: the Forest, River and Bay.” The book describes a historically coherent ecosystem and economy. Fishing and fish processing connected a once diverse ocean ecosystem to the surrounding community economies. The book was as much a reflection on a coherent past as a call to action based on the environmental and social threats of the mid-1990s.
The need to see the region as one is renewed as one town considers a development proposal that will impact the bay and beyond: DCP Midstream’s application to site a large liquefied propane gas storage tank in Searsport. The proposal is being reviewed locally by Searsport’s citizen planning board, but it is critical we also consider how it fits the bay region.
Our economic base is narrowing. The 26 island and coastal communities throughout the bay rely on roughly 25,000 jobs, according to research conducted by Planning Decisions Inc. of Portland, for the Island Institute. A significant portion of these jobs are in tourism and fisheries, and together they generate roughly $840 million in income. Approximately $600 million of this income comes from retail sales and $134 million from meals and lodging.
Today, fisheries make up 25 percent of the jobs in the bay’s economy and contribute $108 million, or 12 percent, of the economic base of the bay. The fisheries economy is perhaps the most fragile: lobster landings have increased fourfold over the past 20 years, pointing to a seemingly unsustainable population dynamic.
Where we once had diverse fisheries, our bay has now become a lobster mono-cropping operation. Making things worse, the ocean environment is in flux and, on top of that, fishermen are price-takers because individual fishing businesses don’t control enough of the supply to influence price.
Demographically speaking, Penobscot Bay is Maine, but even more so. We are increasingly dependent on an aging community with a growing influx of seasonal residents. Twenty-five percent of the homes throughout the bay are occupied seasonally. Over the past 10 years, we have seen an 18 percent increase in people 65 and older in towns around the bay.
This influx — many of whom are accomplished professionals — brings undeniable benefits, but a concurrent result is that fewer working people must rely on the ability of older residents to support schools and other municipal functions while on fixed incomes. Our futures are increasingly tied together.
The energy outlook for a number of towns in the bay raises further concern. The islands in the bay are some of the highest-cost energy communities in the nation, with rates varying from 28 cents per kilowatt hour on the Fox Islands to roughly 70 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity on Monhegan. They stand out among other Penobscot Bay towns that are slightly more dependent on propane and slightly less dependent on heating oil than the rest of the state. There is no evidence that an LPG terminal in Searsport would improve this situation.
Within the counties surrounding the bay, it is worth noting that 91 percent of the gross real estate valuation in these counties comes from the towns bordering the water: $11 billion for the bay vs. $12 billion for the counties as a whole. In fact, our bay makes up 7 percent of the entire $163 billion land valuation for the state of Maine.
The bay may be land rich, but our governance structure allows one town and abutting municipalities to make decisions at the expense of others. To this point, the bay is made up of 26 separate towns, three counties, two economic development districts and four labor markets.
Combining income and land valuation, the bay is worth nearly $12 billion — a very fragile $12 billion. Any decisions about the future of the bay should only add to that value, rather than detract from it.
With a fractured governance structure, it is fairly easy for DCP, a dredge spoil project, a cruise boat terminal developer or any other major infrastructure project to come in and request a local audience for their proposals without the communities around the bay noticing. In the case of DCP, the tank site may be permitted for the import of LPG, but in the end, the global energy market will determine the next best use for the terminal if demand for imports remains low as a result of fracking.
We have serious energy challenges here in Maine. If DCP can show a clear and real benefit to our communities around the bay, then it would be worthwhile discussing whether or not the benefits outweigh the potential costs to the bay. At this point, however, those benefits remain ill-defined, so we are taking a risk based on the future of energy markets – a risk our communities can’t afford to take.
The Island Institute will be releasing the study “A Threatened Bay” on April 3 and discussing the findings of the report on a public webinar at 3 p.m. on that day. Please visit www.islandinstitute.org for more information, or contact email@example.com or 594-9209.
Rob Snyder is president-elect of the Island Institute, based in Rockland.