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Here's the Catch

The best idea to help small fisheries might come from your local vegetable farm.

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By Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; Page F01

PORT CLYDE, Maine -- The idea of a community-supported fishery seems so obvious, you have to wonder why it took so long. The equivalent approach to farming, after all, is nothing new and has seen explosive growth in recent years, as farmers appreciate an upfront infusion of cash when they need it most, from consumers who get a guaranteed stream of produce throughout the season.

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Maybe it took this long for fishermen to try the same thing for one simple reason: They may be geniuses at harvesting from the sea, but they haven't until recently given much thought to marketing what they catch.

To survive, though, they must sell at a decent price, and that's where the community-supported fishery (CSF) idea comes in. Similar efforts are happening in other coastal areas around the country, but the purest expression of the concept may be taking shape in this sweet little port on the southwestern shore of Maine's Penobscot Bay, where the fishermen have organized Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a novel way to buy fish and to market the catch of the Midcoast Fishermen's Association's 24 fishing members.

In summer they fish for cod, haddock, hake and the like (conventionally called groundfish) out in the Gulf of Maine, but at this midwinter point, the Port Clyders work closer to shore, harvesting shrimp. And not just any shrimp, but boatloads of small, sweet, pink Maine shrimp, a little-known seafood that is as much a gustatory joy of this state's winters as lobster is in summer.

As delicious a product as it is, in the past the fishermen have been paid as little as 25 cents a pound for it, a price that doesn't even begin to cover the cost of a fishing trip. Clearly, something had to happen, or there would be no more fishermen in Port Clyde.

Incredible as it seems, this community of just over 1,000 is the second-largest fishing port in Maine and the seventh-largest north of New Jersey. That's an indication of the extent to which East Coast fisheries have failed in recent decades, their decline caused by the collapse of stocks in the North Atlantic and, fishermen say, by stringent environmental regulations aimed at rebuilding them. Many fishing grounds have been put completely off limits, and fishing gear, catch allotments and days at sea are severely limited and monitored. And still, regulators say, fishing stocks are in peril.

Fishermen, and their many defenders, say the rules are overly restrictive, ultimately futile and perhaps even part of the problem. The regulation, they say, has had an unintended consequence: driving out community-based fishermen, who are more attuned to the resources and the need to protect them, in favor of less-sensitive commercial trawlers. According to Philip Conkling, director of the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization in nearby Rockland that works to sustain communities around the Gulf of Maine, the system "rewards the biggest, least-conservation-oriented vessels that can roam throughout the gulf and to the outer banks, at the expense of community-based vessels that lack political representation at the decision-making level" of fisheries management.

Whether fishing for shrimp or groundfish, Port Clyde fishermen are committed, in the words of their association's mission statement, to enhancing "ecological and financial sustainability of the fishery while minimizing habitat impacts with alternative fishing practices." They use environmentally friendly gear developed in collaboration with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

"It's what's called a raised foot rope trawl," explained Glen Libby, chairman of the fishermen's association. The technology, he said, "keeps the ground line or foot rope off the bottom. The sweep does touch bottom, but only every two or three feet of the length of the sweep due to the way it is designed." Unlike conventional draggers that scrape the bottom barren, like clear-cutting a swath of forest, this technique is "very clean -- as in low-bycatch, low-habitat-impact," Libby says. "We also use a fish excluder device called a Nordmore grate that eliminates most of the bycatch of fish, lobsters, et cetera."

Ultimately, the effort is about sustaining not just the fish but also a generations-old tradition that is rapidly disappearing along the Maine coast. And that effort is all about the ability to make a living. If he's lucky, a Port Clyde fisherman who sells groundfish to a wholesale dealer might get 50 cents a pound for his fresh catch; selling through the CSF directly to consumers, whether individuals or restaurants, he's paid about $3 a pound. That's something a man can live on, raise a family on, use to pay off the mortgage on house or boat. (I say "man" because the Port Clyde fishermen are all guys, though ably assisted on shore by girlfriends, mothers, daughters and wives; Kim Libby, married to Glen's brother Gary, is business manager of Port Clyde Fresh Catch.)

The idea behind the CSF goes back to the Libby brothers' sense, in Glen's words, that "30 years ago there was a lot more fish, and the gear was a lot less high-tech. So maybe we should take a step back and lighten things up." They were convinced that the only way to save the fishery was to fish more sustainably, which meant harvesting fewer fish but better-quality ones that would command a higher price from savvy consumers.

After the fishermen's association formed in 2006, its members made gear improvements and proposed a seasonal closure on fishing in the Gulf of Maine in winter, when the fish are most vulnerable. The next step was a marketing campaign, branding the catch as Port Clyde fish, an indication of sustainable harvesting. The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place at a Gulf of Maine Research Institute event in fall 2007, when Glen and others heard for the first time about community-supported agriculture.


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