Trap Day Comes Early
Lobstermen hope a compromise this year will keep Monhegan's fishery alive.
For years, Trap Day has marked the start of winter on Monhegan, as the island fishermen all set their traps together on December 1, officially kicking off what has traditionally been Maine's only winter-only lobster season. But Trap Day will come a bit sooner this year to this island situated a dozen miles off the midcoast, as the legislature has approved an emergency measure that opens Monhegan's season on October 1. In exchange for a longer season - it'll still end around the first week of June - the island fishermen have agreed to cut the number of traps they each set in half, to just three hundred, the smallest number of anywhere in Maine.
The reason for the changes comes down to balancing science with economics. Lobster landing reports and tagging studies both indicate that lobsters migrate from their summer grounds along the mainland to the relatively warmer, deeper water off Monhegan in the fall. This puts the fishermen operating within the twenty-square-mile Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area at a distinct disadvantage, as their traps are still on dry land while the increasing number of fishermen working from Friendship, Port Clyde, and other midcoast ports are able to harvest the migrating lobsters. "The Monhegan island fishermen felt that their living had become quite marginal and that they needed to make some changes," explains Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "They are very committed to keeping that population of lobsters vital, but at the same time they realize that they need to keep their economic activity alive."
Carl Wilson, a lobster biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says that as the number of lobster fishermen has risen along with the number of lobsters - Maine landings have tripled in the past twenty years, to around 73 million pounds last year - the advantages of sticking with a winter-only season has diminished. "Monhegan fishermen used to harvest lobsters at a time when the price was very high," Wilson says. "Now the price doesn't fluctuate as much as it used to. When [Monhegan] lobstermen started last year in December, the price was actually less than it was in August."
The island lobstermen admit that moving Trap Day to October shifts the seasonal rhythms on Monhegan but maintain that the changes are a matter of survival. "There's a break in tradition, and we like our traditions here, but we just had to do something to make the economics work," says lobsterwoman Christina Cash. "Everyone is in the same boat."
Let's hope this compromise with Mother Nature - and with other Maine lobstermen - will keep the islanders' traps and wallets full this season.
Don't throw out those "outdated" gift cards just yet.
A gift certificate from last Christmas resurfaced in our sock drawer the other day. When we noticed that the expiration date on it was fast approaching, we hurriedly made restaurant reservations. As it turns out, we didn't need to rush after all.
"Maine law says that there can be no period of expiration on a gift certificate," explains Jim McKenna, the assistant attorney general in charge of consumer protection. The law also requires that if a business does put an expiration date on a gift certificate and the date passes without it being used, the business must turn the money over to the state of Maine's Unclaimed Property division so the owner can be notified and the money refunded. "You can't take the money for a product and then not deliver the product or a refund just because a certain amount of time has passed," McKenna notes.
According to several legal-information Web sites, Maine, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Washington all prohibit expiration dates. Even without the law, McKenna notes, it's just good customer service to honor an old gift card. And all Maine businesses want happy customers.
Plastic from Potatoes
Are spuds from Maine the new miracle material?
Aroostook County was once studded with starch plants that extracted the useful material from cull potatoes for use in laundries, papermaking, adhesives, and many other products. So there's a certain "back to the future" quality to a report that suggests potato starch as a feedstock for the next wave of bioplastics to be used in everything from carpet to shampoo bottles.
The report from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine notes that the state's farmers could supply a new bioplastics industry just by expanding acreage and selling cull potatoes, those unsuitable for tablestock or processing. Unlike corn - where ethanol demand has reduced its availability for food uses and driven up food prices - "supplying potatoes for a starch-based plastic doesn't have to take anything out of the human food supply," notes Kate Dickerson, the researcher who co-authored the report.
Dickerson credits Wendy Porter, of Interface Fabrics in Guilford, with sparking the new research with the help of a ten thousand dollar grant from the Maine Institute of Technology. The company already makes some of its carpets, upholstery, and other industrial fabrics from corn-based bioplastic and recycled plastics. "Interface has a goal of being completely sustainable by 2020," Dickerson notes. "Wendy is a Mainer, and she thought it would be great if the company could find a more local source for its bioplastic."
"Farmers up here are excited by the idea," adds Timothy Hobbs, of the Maine Potato Board in Presque Isle. "Potato farming is a mature industry, and anytime you see a new market opening up it's a good thing."
Dickerson says more research is needed to determine the best varieties for starch content and the best extraction processes. "We can use culls or grow potatoes just specifically for starch content," she explains. "We hope to have all the answers within the next two or three years." Quite a few other companies in Maine are interested in the possibilities of potato plastic, including Tom's of Maine and Correct Building Products.
Among other uses, potato starch can be used to make clear plastic water bottles, which raises the possibility of the ultimate Poland Spring product - water from Maine springs in bottles made from Maine potatoes. Welcome to the future.
In 1692, Maine cast a spell over the Salem witch trials.
Maine has always been a magical place, but back in the late 1600s the good people of Salem, Massachusetts, saw nothing but the blackest kind of sorcery up here. Hidden among all the stories about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, in which twenty people were tried, convicted, and executed as witches, is the fact that just about everyone involved once lived in Maine. Events in Maine, both real and psychological, played a major role in starting and sustaining the hysteria, according to a Cornell University history professor who has literally written the book on the subject.
"If you look at the backgrounds of the people running around the Salem trials, the Maine connections are stunning," says Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). "The presence of Maine is everywhere in the witch trials."
For example, the Reverend George Burroughs, formerly of Wells and Falmouth (now Portland), was accused of being the ringleader of the Salem coven and a tool of Satan. One of his accusers, Mercy Lewis, was also a former Falmouth resident, neighbor, and, after being orphaned by an Indian raid, probably his servant. Burroughs was hanged.
Other former Mainers, including Ann Putnam and Abigail Hobbs, were also active in accusing Salem residents of witchcraft. "John Alden, a member of the prominent Alden family, was also accused of being a witch, and he was in Maine all the time negotiating with the Indians," Norton adds.
At a time when Salem was well settled and land was at a premium, "Maine was the frontier where everyone was going to make money in lumber and fishing," Norton explains. "Maine was the big cash cow for Massachusetts." But Indian raids, most recently during King William's War, which was ongoing during the trials, spread terror throughout New England and effectively depopulated Maine as settlers fled for the safety of more heavily defended Massachusetts. The mysterious and deadly Indians became identified by the deeply religious settlers with evil and the Devil.
Salem and surrounding towns were filled with refugees from Maine, Norton notes. "The same people who were dealing with each other in Salem in 1692 had been dealing with each other in Maine in the 1670s and 1680s," she says.
Norton makes the case that many of the accusers in Salem were girls and young women suffering from post-traumatic stress over the loss of friends and family to Indian raids and the shock of losing their homes. The hysteria created by the accusations fed on "an overwhelming climate of fear where these New Englanders felt themselves under attack by a coalition of witches and Indians," she says. "It didn't help that there was an Indian attack on Billerica, only twenty miles away, during the trials."
Norton says Maine's influence on the witch trials was at first difficult to see because so many records of the era were lost when York was burned and most of its inhabitants killed during an Indian raid in 1692. "It's only recently that people have started to pay attention to Maine's early history," she notes. If the surprises that have surfaced so far are any indication, much more remains to be found.
We ought to learn to live with the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge for a while.
Mainers can be a bit skeptical of fancy new structures that go up here from time to time, but even the worst naysayers have been silent since the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge opened last summer. A few elevator-system glitches aside, the $85-million span between Prospect and Verona Island has become Maine's newest tourist attraction - one couple has already swapped wedding vows at the top of the nose-bleed-high observatory.
Sadly, the only thing obscuring the view is the Penobscot Narrows' predecessor, the circa-1931 Waldo-Hancock Bridge. What dignity the once-groundbreaking span possessed seems to have disappeared since it closed to traffic in December, with rust taking over the suspension cables and the roadway looking like a Baghdad sidestreet. The Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) says that repairing the bridge, even for a pedestrian path, is out of the question, though it has stabilized the structure to prevent pieces from falling into the river below. To make matters worse, a pedestrian walkway that still needs to be added to the new bridge cannot be built until the Waldo-Hancock comes down. And down it must come: the permit that MDOT signed with the U.S. Coast Guard to build the Penobscot Narrows Bridge stipulated that it had to be removed by March 30, 2007 - roughly six months ago.
The problem, of course, is that no one knows where to find the $7 million-15 million required to dismantle the deteriorating structure. "This is one of the bridges that when you take it apart, you have to actually reverse the construction process, actually take all the pieces off before you take the suspension cables down," explains Dale Doughty, acting director of planning with MDOT. "As you can imagine, removal of the bridge is terribly expensive, and we're talking with the Coast Guard about the timing of it." The demolition of the Waldo-Hancock would be eligible for a mixture of federal and state funds, but both were in short supply even before the horrible August collapse of Interstate 35W in Minnesota. The project is not included in MDOT's two-year work plan that includes all work through 2010, yet Doughty maintains he understands the responsibility the state took on when it signed the construction permit. "If our negotiations worked out where we had to remove it immediately, we would have to take the funds from a project that's already in the works," he says, adding that some 288 other bridges in Maine also need attention. "But if the Coast Guard requires it of us, we'll do it."
Now that the Penobscot Narrows Bridge is up and running, we'd all like to do the right thing. But before we improve our view, let's make sure the rest of Maine's bridges are steady on their feet.
Penobscot River anglers again get a chance at a legendary fish.
Anglers will get a second opportunity this fall to land, but not keep, Atlantic salmon in the legendary salmon pools of the Penobscot River. After considerable debate, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission recently approved a month-long season - September 15 to October 15 - with identical rules as last year's season, the first since 1999.
Last year almost 250 fishermen bought the special license that allowed them to try their luck on the river near Bangor. This year, as last, the fishing will be carefully regulated. Fishermen must use artificial lures and barbless hooks, and each angler may catch and release only one fish. Fisheries biologists will monitor the river constantly, and a system of signal flags at the Bangor, Eddington, and Veazie salmon pools will allow them to halt the fishing at any time.
"If the water temperature gets too high or there is any other issue that puts the salmon at risk, we'll fly the red flag," explains Joan Trial, the senior Atlantic salmon biologist with the Department of Marine Resources. "The efforts to restore the salmon run take precedence over the fishing."
Sea-run Atlantic salmon are vanishingly rare in most Maine rivers these days, and the Penobscot is the last waterway with a significant population of the fish. Despite decades of work to restore salmon runs crippled by dams and pollution in the rivers and overfishing at sea, the annual salmon run in the handful of Maine rivers that still have them can be counted in the dozens - or even on the fingers of one hand.
Last year's experimental season was the result of several years of improving salmon numbers in the Penobscot, with more than a thousand fish each year passing through the counting stations on the river. It also gave a boost to the salmon clubs that have consistently supported conservation and repopulation efforts on the river even as their memberships dwindled.
Trial says numbers this year are down significantly, with only 744 fish counted through early August, and that fact may affect how the salmon season is regulated. "We know there are fish in cold water spots below the traps waiting to move upriver when water temperatures drop," she explains. "But I'm hearing that lower runs are common on rivers in Canada this year, too."
Most fishermen will say that it's the fishing, not the catching, that they love about their sport. A good thing in this case. Last year, only one salmon was caught. But if the attention the new season attracts results in more efforts to restore Maine's treasured fish, then the fishing is worth it.
The Maine Mystique
Now the Norwegians are getting into the Maine branding game.
Jotul, the Norwegian stove company that first made its name in Maine during the energy crises of the 1970s, is now making names out of Maine places. Over the past several years, the company's North American division has begun giving names to its wood and gas stoves, rather than using just product numbers, and many of them are drawn from locations in the Pine Tree State.
Company officials say the change comes for two reasons: The Maine mystique helps sell stoves, and the women who make up the bulk of their customers identify more with product names such as Katahdin, Allagash, and Castine than with model numbers. "As it turned out, if you look at the market research, women identify with [product] names much better than they do with numbers," explains Bret Watson, president of Jotul North America in Gorham. "And being a Maine company is only an upside for us. Maine has a reputation for quality and craftsmanship that we identify with very strongly, and we want our product to reflect that."
Jotul has imported its stoves through Portland since the 1970s, but Watson says Jotul North America has now moved into manufacturing as well as assembly and distribution. "When I came here from Hearthstone in 1998, we had thirteen employees and sales of $8 million," Watson says. "We now have seventy-eight employees and sales of $25 million to $30 million." The company's Gorham facility is now making many of its gas stoves and fireplace units, and in fact has started exporting them back to Europe, an ironic reversal for a company that started as strictly an importing enterprise.
With 35 percent of its sales in the Northeast, Watson says the Maine names play well in the region. (The names are used only in the United States and Canada.) Customers in the Pacific Northwest or upstate Michigan who don't make the connection catch on quickly. "We can educate anyone who doesn't know the product," he offers.
It probably makes sense that the "Winterport" fireplace insert is more memorable than a C350 - as long as its ability to hold a fire and heat a room doesn't change.