The Last Port
Fishermen in Port Clyde hope their innovative ideas for harvesting — and selling — locally caught seafood will be enough to save
- By: Joshua F. Moore
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee
Most people know Port Clyde, if they know it at all, as the postcard-perfect fishing village at the tip of the St. George peninsula. The port has been memorialized by three generations of Wyeths, as well as the painters Greg Mort and Barbara Ernst Prey, and is home to the Marshall Point Lighthouse where Forrest Gump famously paused on his cross-country jogging spree.
Turn south on Route 131 at the Montpelier mansion in Thomaston and the winding road carries you down a gnarled finger of land, knotted with villages one after the other — Long Cove, Tenants Harbor, Martinsville — strung along the St. George River on one side and Two Bush Channel on the other. At the very end is Port Clyde with its green-painted general store and the deck-side Dip Net restaurant, now owned by L.L. Bean heiress and lobster entrepreneur Linda Bean [Down East, July 2009]. There, too, is the bustling Monhegan Boat Line, which will ferry you in all seasons and all weather to that fabled island nine miles offshore. Much of Port Clyde sits on a steep hillside or on actual piers above the harbor, and more than a few visitors have compared the vibe to the salty seaport in the movie version of Popeye.
Of course, there are lobsterboats and smelly yellow traps stacked along the wharves and refrigerated trucks that come barreling out of town at 4 a.m. carrying seafood destined for dinner plates around the world. But riding at anchor in the harbor are fishing boats of another kind, too, boats you don’t see much in Maine anymore: big, weatherbeaten draggers with industrial winches and gillnets rolled like baling twine. Port Clyde might not literally be Maine’s last fishing outpost — but there are days when it seems it is.
Ten years ago the groundfishing fleet — those boats between forty and seventy feet long that use nets to catch cod, halibut, hake, and pollack — included more than twenty ships. In 2003 the federal government declared Port Clyde and its $10 million haul one of the eighteen largest fishing ports in the Northeast.
Today only a dozen groundfishing boats set out from here, bringing back just 1.5 million pounds of shrimp and fish combined. The depleted fish stocks and federal fishing restrictions that have decimated Maine’s groundfishing fleets — only Portland and Port Clyde remain as working ports — have forced fishermen, business leaders, and even summer residents to come up with new methods of operating if a way of life is to survive in this community of a few hundred souls.
“It’s pretty much universal in this group of fishermen that we want to have something for the future,” remarks Glen Libby, 53, a local fisherman and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association. “Of course, we want to make a living, too, but we don’t want to be the last ones here. But we could be — we could be the last fishermen in Port Clyde.”
Libby says he came to that frightening realization three years ago when he and several other local fishermen attended a discussion at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. A speaker there described a proposal in North Carolina to use the community-supported agriculture model to save fisheries (the idea was never fully implemented). Libby and his fellow fishermen thought that such a concept might work in Port Clyde. “We started talking about it on the drive home, and just like that we decided to start a shrimp CSF (community-supported fishery),” Libby says. Working with the Island Institute in Rockland, the fishermen came up with a business plan and a new brand: Port Clyde Fresh Catch.
Capitalizing that first winter on Maine’s annual crop of tiny, delectable shrimp, Libby’s group convinced thirty-five people in January 2007 to buy shares for thirty dollars apiece, each share entitling them to six pounds of raw, whole shrimp on a weekly basis. When the shrimp season transitioned into groundfish season, the fishermen transformed their fledgling CSF to offer whole fish (three dollars a pound, with a share equaling ten pounds a week). Though the program grew over the next two years, the average consumer’s inability to deal with the whole, raw product (who wants to cut off a fish head?) proved to be a significant stumbling block.
Last spring, therefore, the group opened its own federally certified processing plant on land leased from Phyllis Wyeth, wife of Jamie, off Marshall Point Road, allowing it to finally offer consumers ready-to-cook seafood. The CSF now includes some 350 customers, delivering to individual consumers in Port Clyde as well as to farmer’s markets as distant as Bath and Gardiner, along with more than fifty restaurants from Brunswick to Mount Desert Island. This year, the group plans to offer a lobster and crab CSF option.
To meet demand, the co-op has had to hire up to ten new people, Libby says. Perhaps most importantly, fishermen are receiving far better price-per-pound rates than they would have if they’d sold their fish at auction, meaning they don’t need to haul as many fish out of the ocean in order to make a decent living.
That component, says Stonington fisherman and marine scientist Ted Ames, may end up being the most important advancement the Port Clyde fishermen have made in terms of saving groundfishing in Maine. “I and most of my colleagues are some of Port Clyde’s strongest supporters,” says Ames, the vice chairman of the Penobscot East Resource Center, who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2005 for his work on rebuilding New England’s groundfisheries. “Their local marketing is the first one that’s come down the pike that is working for groundfishing.”
“We used to have forty-seven boats between Boothbay and Jonesport in the Maine Gillnetters Association,” he continues. “Not a one survives today. If we want fresh fish in Stonington, where we used to land between two and seven million pounds of fish, we have to get it from Canada or Massachusetts.
“We look at Port Clyde as ‘Boy, they’ve got to hang on or else Maine is going to get squeezed out entirely.’ ”
Finding the balance between sustaining fish stocks and keeping fishermen working along the Maine coast — as well as elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine — has proven problematic over the past decade. Regulators have tried everything from limiting the number of days fishermen can spend at sea (last year it was just thirty-nine) to dictating the type of gear they can use. Beginning in May, groundfishermen will be governed by a new quota system that allows them to band together in “sectors” and divide up their allowable catch among themselves. Libby says his sector already includes about thirty groundfishing boats not based in Port Clyde, further ensuring a steady supply of fish.
Ames says mid-size fishing boats like those in Port Clyde are well situated to build a lucrative, sustainable brand out of a high-quality catch that cannot be obtained from larger ships. “Coastal fishermen land very high quality seafood,” he declares. “But in our industrial fishing system, these high quality fish are going to the bottom of the hold [in huge commercial ships] along with the fish that were caught a week ago, and they’re all shipped off to God knows where.”
Ames says protecting and sustaining local fish habitat — which Port Clyde’s system will do through encouraging smaller, higher quality catches — is essential to rebuilding Maine’s coastal fisheries. “I compare what lobster fishermen have done and what groundfisherman haven’t done,” he says. “They [lobstermen] protected spawning lobsters and juveniles. We [groundfishermen] targeted spawning grounds, we targeted juveniles. The times are gone when you sail out and touch something no one else has touched. Either you take care of it, or you’re going to destroy it.”
Taking care of the resources vital to Port Clyde’s future has become the mission of Herring Gut Learning Center, a nonprofit marine education program that happens to be the next-door neighbor of Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Within this nine-year-old campus, which includes a two-hundred-year-old Cape, aquaponic greenhouse, and other buildings overlooking Teel Cove, at-risk students from area middle and high schools learn aquaculture. The curriculum includes an innovative program where participants raise seed oysters and sell them on the open market, as well as other topics related to ocean ecology, marine biology, and the economics behind a working waterfront.
“There’s a real congruence in the missions of our two groups, as there’s a great interest in students from our community in the commercial fishing business,” remarks Wes Todd, Herring Gut’s executive director. “Herring Gut weighs in more on the side of science and environmental stewardship, where the guys in Port Clyde Fresh Catch are going to be writing the next chapter for what the opportunities will be for young people in the fishing business.”
As the chance for opportunity grows in Port Clyde, the atmosphere around the village appears to be changing. “There’s a certain level of excitement now,” says Toni Small, who has lived in Port Clyde with her mother for about four years. “When I went to pick up the fish this summer on Saturdays, there was a level of camaraderie among neighbors. It’s so old-school, but it feels new. There’s a certain level of spunk now, of pride.”
“When you’re here every day, change is kind of more organic, so you don’t notice it,” remarks Herring Gut’s Wes Todd. “But I do notice people who come down, and see what is going on with the fishermen, and what Ms. Bean is doing [on the wharf], and they do remark how much is going on at the end of the road.”
- By: Joshua F. Moore
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee