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Hidden Working Waterfronts: A Panel Conversation

On a beautiful, sunny evening at the Maine Oyster Company’s Basecamp in Phippsburg, guests gathered at a truly hidden working waterfront for MCFA’s latest panel conversation aptly titled, “Hidden Working Waterfronts”. As people settled in, they sampled Smoked Maine Pollock Dip, MCFA’s latest seafood product collaboration with Dunstan Smokehouse in Scarborough, the proceeds from which benefit MCFA’s program.


The evening’s panelists included Marissa McMahan of Manomet and also a resident of Georgetown and member of a multigenerational fishing family, Pat Burns, a Georgetown resident who has been part of the comprehensive planning process and the formation of the Georgetown Aquaculture Co-op, Lawrence Pye, a local lobsterman and member of the Small Point Development Corporation, and John Herrigel of Maine Oyster Company, who generously hosted the event and also provided oysters for guests to sample.

The panelists opened by each sharing their own definition of the working waterfront. McMahan described the often missed cultural value and described her family’s wharf by saying, “That’s where you would go in the summer. There were grandmothers, cousins, and kids running around. It’s part of our community.” Burns added that working waterfronts “aren’t just piers and wharves, but can also be floating,” referring to aquaculture out on the water. Pye added, “there isn’t one size that fits all. It can literally be a path to the water used by clammers”. Herrigel pointed out that, “working waterfront is an evolving term,” referring to new uses like ecotours, for example. Audience members chimed in with the addition of including things like boat building and storage, and properties with “traps you see stacked as you drive down the road”. Another asked, “Isn’t all of Maine a working waterfront?” suggesting that we ought to allow a more expansive definition that shows the connectivity across the state.


Next up was a discussion of the puzzle of how to value the working waterfront. A common theme among panelists was the multiple facets of valuation from looking at past, present and future to sociological, financial and cultural, with the admission by all that the non-economic values are very difficult to measure. Gentrification came up as one audience member suggested that, “realtors have the responsibility to tell people what’s out there - that it might be noisy or stinky,” before people make the decision to buy waterfront property. 


Coombs talked about MCFA’s Scuttlebutt guides that MCFA has created have helped to educate current and new residents about what it is like to live in a waterfront community. The guide includes resources on how people can help to conserve access for commercial fishermen through easements and rights of way. 14th generation Harpswell resident and Climate Finance Specialist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Nikki Yanok, shared a personal example of building access into the deed to her waterfront property. Another audience member gave an example of the owner of multiple properties who would only sell to fishermen in the community. Pye described the importance of maintaining affordable options for the next generation to buy waterfront property, and McMahan added the value of staying in town. “If you’re a shellfish harvester and you have to move, you lose your license to harvest in that town and you also lose your vote, your say in your community.”


The impacts of January’s storms on Georgetown and Phippsburg could not be missed. “We took a hit,” said McMahan, “One wave took it,” she said, referring to the wharf her grandfather, who is now 92, built. “We probably won’t rebuild and eventually that property will no longer be a working waterfront,” she said, explaining that her property didn’t qualify for any rebuilding funds and wasn’t covered by insurance, a common problem for many discrete working waterfronts. Yanok pointed to a project at GMRI to create a “Flood Insurance Literacy” resource for commercial fishermen, coming out of these storms. On a positive note, however, McMahan said, “I’ve never experienced community like this. The day after the storm, a crane truck showed up to help and there were so many volunteers, people helping us to race against the next storm to save whatever gear we could.”  


Other hopeful thoughts included opportunities for the future. Pye started by saying, “There’s enough momentum that I think we’ll see positive solutions.” Burns pointed to the untapped opportunity for our waters to provide food for so many people. Herrigel challenged, “How do you innovate? We have to think of what new options there are in the future.” And, McMahan ended by saying, “If you look backwards, Maine has been #1 in the seafood space. Even with threats like sea level rise, gentrification and climate change, we can do it again.” 


“Let’s keep the conversation going,” said Herrigel, thanking people for attending as host of the event. There was palpable interest in doing just that, continuing to have conversational gatherings like this one, and also creating a Scuttlebutt guide for the Phippsburg community. 




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