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  • Writer's pictureMonique Coombs

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.