MCFA BLOG
  • Ben Martens

The Past and Future of Portland's Working Waterfront

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

When Portland fishermen speak of the working waterfront on Commercial St. they often reminisce of a time when the fishing industry dominated the Waterfront Central Zone, although, back then it was not designated as such; it was just the working waterfront. From the Maine State Pier down to Holyoke Wharf, long-liners, lobstermen, and swordfish harvesters could be found rigging their gear and preparing to head out to sea. Commercial St. itself was only about 100-years old back in the 1960’s; the street was filled in over old piers around 1850 to accommodate for growing railroad and warehouse needs. Many of these needs were because of the fishing industry, seafood, and canning.



Fast forward to the 1970’s and 1980’s and Commercial St. starts to change a bit. Condos and non-marine-use businesses begin to see the value of being on the water in Portland and the dynamics of Commercial St. shift from primarily commercial to commercial with some other businesses mixed in. Fishermen did not sit idly by but instead raised the alarm and defended their access and history.

In 2018, more than 30 years later, one fisherman who was a part of the 1980’s moratorium said, “I can’t believe we have to do this again.”


Portland is a fascinating case study when investigating the ebbs and flows of a working waterfront. A populous and popular city, Portland is home to artists, chefs, foodies, Mainers, immigrants, retirees, lawyers, business-owners and developers. And though the city, especially Commercial St., was built around commercial fishing, it does seem to be a bit more difficult to ascertain it in 2019. There’s a bit of irony here because many of the artists, chefs, and foodies are in the Portland area because they are inspired by the fishermen, fishing, and the delicious seafood they harvest. But, as fisherman Willis Spear points out, and the Pauli exclusion principle confirms, two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.



But, let’s not spend too much time being nostalgic for a time when Commercial St. was dominated by the commercial fishing industry. We can’t forget that the 1866 Great Fire was likely started in a fish house; that prohibition led to the Rum Riots; that women were considered bad luck on boats; that much of why there was not further development in the area was because the opportunity and financial capabilities just did not exist. In 2019, development and new business opportunities are intimidating, but with steadfast fishermen and alert city staff, development and new business opportunities can help a community thrive, adapt, and improve.


What does the working waterfront in Portland look like in ten years? If we want to ensure that the fishing industry is a part of that future, we must plan for it rather than hope that it is able to maintain itself, and we have to be realistic about aquaculture, climate change, sea-level rise, fiscal responsibilities, and development opportunities. This is true is many of Maine’s coastal communities.


The value of Portland’s working waterfront is immeasurable. The jobs the industry creates extend to truck driving, bait dealing, lobster processing, and fish filleting. The culture it inhibits inspires artists and musicians. There is a saturation point where there are more people and too many business for the waterfront to handle, but we don’t want to get there because if we do arrive to the point, we may no longer have the very reason and inspiration that brought people to Commercial St. It’s not a matter of just moving boats to another community because it’s not just about location and access; it’s about a way of life and the fabric that stitches together all the different parts of a community.

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An industry-based nonprofit that identifies and fosters ways to restore the fisheries of the Gulf of Maine and sustain Maine's fishing communities for future generations. 

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