They do their best work on the water.
Thank you so much to the Harpswell Anchor for the permission to repost this on our blog.
It was originally posted in the Anchor in November 2019.
“They Do Their Best Work on the Water”
Preserving Maine’s Commercial Fishing Heritage
By Kara Douglas
“If we want the working waterfront to survive for commercial fishermen, we need to provide fishermen with
the resources they need to thrive into the future,” Monique Coombs explains as she leans forward in her chair across the table at the Bailey Island General Store.
“Fishermen don’t choose to do the work they do because they love marketing and selling their products,” Coombs laughs. “They do their best work out there on the water. Funding that is available to fishermen and working waterfronts is usually in the form of infrastructure, but so often what they need is assistance with marketing, promotion, insurance costs.”
Coombs is no stranger to hard work or juggling the schedules of her professional and family commitments with the often-unpredictable nature of her husband’s lobstering business. As the Director of Marine Programs for the non-profit Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), Coombs seeks to understand the issues wreaking havoc on Maine’s working waterfronts, thus impacting fishing communities throughout the state.
“The working waterfront is a keystone for the commercial fishing industry, but it’s constantly under the threat of shoreline development, sea-level rise and complaints about how it looks or sounds,” Coombs says. Public spaces that were once available for lobstermen to store their traps are diminishing, making accessibility a challenge and the reality of their work increasingly invisible.
“If we compare the fishing industry with agriculture – both natural resource-based industries – we see support systems for farmers when faced with adversity, but many fewer supports for fishermen,” Coombs says. She names crop and livestock insurance as two safety nets farmers have access to that fishermen do not. “If cyclical or climate changes mean the fish don’t show up, fishermen are just out of luck,” she says. “We’ve always known this is a possibility, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful for the fishermen and their families.”
For the past year, Coombs has been spending time in fishing communities, including Harpswell, where she lives, to learn more about issues affecting commercial fishing wharves and working waterfronts. While other work has been done to assess the impact of issues like sea-level rise and shoreline development on waterfront industries, no one has yet looked at the impact specifically through the lens of commercial fishermen.
As Coombs sees it, the loss of local commercial fishing businesses has a far greater impact than simply turning up less fish. “Consumers don’t stop eating fish just because they weren’t caught here. They’ll still order fish at a restaurant, but that fish might be imported from South America or Thailand. Importing increases our carbon footprint far beyond what the local industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And the loss of Maine’s fishing culture and heritage is immeasurable.”
As part of her work, Coombs has been collecting old photographs of working waterfronts, fishermen and working boats. “Nothing shows change over time like lining up a history of photographs. I want the working waterfront to be something everyone can see, investigate and think about,” she says.
In coastal towns where fishing families are often priced out of waterfront property due to high property values and floodplain insurance rates, it's especially important to make and maintain community connections. The photographs, Coombs believes, create ‘humanizing stories’ that connect people to the working waterfront.
“So many agreements that allow fishermen access to the waterfront are based on handshakes and relationships,” Coombs explains. “As the populations of coastal towns like Harpswell change and age, some of these agreements are lost or forgotten.”
It’s hard to imagine the actual cost of getting into the fishing industry. Boat and bait prices are just the tip of the iceberg. Permit costs are high. When bait has to be imported, the costs soar. There’s limited access to most fisheries, which sometimes results in being on a permit waiting list for years or decades. Catch quotas determine how many fish can be caught and how often. Injury rates can be high and health care costs aren’t shared. Fishermen don’t set their catch prices. They sell at whatever the market deems catch value day by day.
Adding to these expenses is the reality that everything we do on land impacts the marine environment. “Sooner or later, it all ends up in the ocean,” Coombs says. “Pesticides, plastics, fertilizers – these things all have a severe and cumulative impact on the marine environment and often fishermen pay the price.
Financial costs aside, heritage and resource losses have effects on physical and mental health. “Fishing is hard physical work, so there are consequences for that on the body, but what’s even less talked about are the impacts on fishermen’s mental health. The unpredictable nature of their work, variable catch prices, and increasing costs can take a toll. But, so can the loss of the culture many of them grew up in. So can fewer days on the water because they have to find other work. We need to recognize these consequences.”
Coombs uses the town of Stonington as an example of forward-thinking in regard to their fishing industry. “The town has developed two community reserves: one to deal with the massive expenses of mitigating sea-level rise and the other to sustain their working waterfront,” she says.
In Harpswell, she explains, low property taxes are a draw for retirees looking to relocate or for seasonal residents who maintain a primary home out of state, neither of which tend to be commercial fishermen. Fishing families who live out of town pay property tax bills that support the infrastructure where they live, not in Harpswell, where there is no fund to preserve the working waterfront or access to it.
By talking with fishermen and using photographs and narratives to tell the story of the working waterfront over time, Coombs strives to illuminate Maine’s fishing heritage and connect people from diverse backgrounds in support of our unique fisheries and communities. She hopes to create a digital archive of these photographs that can be shared.
To contribute to her project, contact Monique Coombs at firstname.lastname@example.org.