WASHINGTON COUNTY, MAINE -- From Ellsworth, where the tourists leave U.S. Route 1 for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, the highway runs east into a part of Maine that would be unrecognizable to those who have explored the state through the L.L. Bean catalogue. Though the firs are tall and the coast is rocky, and the men wear hunting boots and plaid shirts, this is not a land of Volvos and squash racquets.

The two-lane highway, the main route to Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, N.B., passes through Sullivan and West Gouldsboro into Washington County, where many people have to work very hard at making a very modest living from the woods and the water. When they want to indulge themselves, they can't afford to buy a high-tech toy; they buy another whirligig for the yard.

A study by the National Center for Economic Alternatives in the late '70s concluded that Maine's per-capita income was the lowest of the 50 states when adjusted for purchasing power and basic necessities. Very simply, in Mississippi an expensive parka would be as useful as a space suit; in Maine it's not an option, especially when you can't pay the oil bill.

In the '80s, however, Yuppies have invaded the Portland area, and western Maine has shared in Boston's, and the rest of New England's, economic boom. Downeast, in Washington, the Sunrise County, however, things haven't changed much and unemployment is the highest in the state. But, there are some bright signs.

In Cutler, home of the world's most powerful radio station, a project of interest to all seafood lovers is being made possible by a modest state grant, donations from faithful townspeople and Yankee ingenuity. The local fishermen are hoping for big things from thousands of tiny lobsters less than an inch long.

In Eastport, which for years has exhibited perhaps the most dramatic contrast of any town anywhere between spectacular natural setting and dreary economic outlook, more than $10 million has been invested in raising salmon in cages. The boards are being removed from some of the store fronts downtown and there's talk of an annual 6-million-pound catch within three years.

And, in Steuben, to prove that all dreams are not large dreams, one man relies on his belief in the natural order and a homemade, 16-foot boat for survival. He harvests seaweed and says he can make do on $12,000-$15,000 -- clear -- a year.

So, it's the sea that makes the eastern most county in the United States a place of such beauty, and it's the sea that provides hope that it can become a better place to earn a living.

Andy Patterson runs the Cutler Marine Hatchery in the basement (the library and town offices are upstairs) of the Cutler Association Building, which sits a couple of hundred feet up on the side of a hill that rises out of the harbor.

Cutler is known locally for fog thick enough to be bottled as a condiment, but on this unexpectedly comfortable and cloudless day in June, Patterson was down on the water in a skiff fixing the pump that is the lifeline of his project. When functioning correctly, it draws seawater out of the harbor, up the hill and into the cellar to ten 100-gallon tanks. There, lobsters smaller than a fingernail are raised until they are no longer swimmers, but bottom dwellers, and will be less enticing to predators when released.

To outsiders, Cutler is best known, if it is known at all, by yachtsmen for its snug, safe harbor and by military personnel for the Naval Communication Unit that transmits messages to submarines all over the world.

But, if all goes well, it may also become known for its little lobsters, which could be a big boost for the beleaguered lobster industry. "Fishing is in trouble and it takes a while to come back," noted Neil Corbett, a local lobster dealer and fisherman who at the time was baiting lines to go halibut fishing.

Maine's lobster catch has remained relatively constant in recent years but more and more traps must be set farther and farther out to sea to achieve that catch and there is fear that lobsters may be overfished.

In Cutler, egg-bearing females are stripped of their fertilizeded eggs, which are then hatched and raised on algae and brine shrimp (also grown there) through their first four stages (from mosquito-size to fully formed) and then released. When they are dumped in the harbor at sites with hospitable bottoms where they can hide in the rocks and kelp, those stage IV lobsters are about 3/4 of an inch long and seven or eight years (and molts) away from being of legal size.

In other words, it will be that long before Patterson and the people of Cutler know whether the project -- started with a grant of $22,000 from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, $1,000 from the town and $4,000-$5,000 in contributions from local residents -- will increase the catch of saleable lobsters.

It is believed that in the wild less than 1 percent of just-hatched stage I larvae survive to legal size. In fact, less than 1 percent may reach even the size at which Patterson releases his charges (19,000 of them last year).

On the other hand, Corbett noted that about 25 percent of the eggs that Patterson and one full-time assistant raise survive to be released and that "we have high hopes" for the project. "A fellow I knew years ago raised some lobsters to 3 years old, and after six years they had great fishing," Corbett added. "By god, he was pretty smart."

Plans for this project are of a much grander scale (the original projection was to release 300,000 per year, but that might have been unrealistic, Patterson said) and there has been continuing input from University of Maine researchers. The process that has evolved cuts the natural growth from egg to stage IV from six weeks to two. They are raised in warmed water and on an "all-you-can-eat" program, and "fine tuning" the procedure may as much as triple the current survival rate, according to Patterson.

One of the problems that affects survival, even in the safety of captivity, is that not only do people love lobsters, but lobsters love lobsters. "They love themselves to death," said Patterson. Lobsters are cannibalistic and raising enough larvae to make the project worthwhile must be balanced against overcrowding the tanks, in which the water is agitated to cut down on the larvae's antisocial activity.

How will they know if the project pays off? Patterson isn't sure because lobsters, which shed their shells as they grow, cannot be tagged. However, experiments elsewhere with blue-shelled lobsters could provide a genetic tag in the future. Then, the fishermen would know what part of their catch came from the town hall.

Wally Stevens can look out the window of his office, across waters that sweep in with the 25-foot tides of Passamaquoddy Bay (among the highest in the world) and see (unless, of course, Eastport is smothered in its variety of world-class fog) the shores of North Lubec perhaps a mile away by boat.

By car, it's about a 40-mile drive to Lubec from Eastport, which is on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway and just a couple of miles by water from another island, Campobello, in Canada, made famous as a vacation retreat by FDR.

It's a long way from almost anywhere else, including Chicago, where Stevens was working six months ago for Booth Fisheries, a division of Sara Lee. In February, he left his employer of 17 years and joined Ocean Products Inc. (the product being salmon) as CEO.

But, his office is very close to Broad Cove, which seemed like the perfect place to raise salmon in cages when Ocean Products was started up four years, and more than $10 million in venture capital, ago. Now, the company has the inventory to sell 10 million pounds of salmon over the next three years. Of course, much of that inventory still has some growing to do, but that's what Ocean Products is all about.

Stevens said that "the future of the seafood industry is dependent on a resource that world-wide is not increasing. One answer to satisfying demand is farming," and that includes farm-raised shrimp, catfish, trout, oysters and clams, as well as salmon.

Americans eat about 3.5 billion pounds of seafood a year, according to Stevens, and "a minimum of 400 million pounds is farm-raised. Ocean Products did 600,000 pounds last year in its second year in the market place." That market place is primarily "white-table {cloth} restaurants," through seafood distributors.

Jim Markos, Jr., general manager of Maine Shellfish Co., Inc., in Ellsworth, is one of those whose company distributes the salmon, some to supermarkets but primarily to restaurants, because, he said, "it's fairly high priced and people don't like to buy a high-priced item and take it home and screw it up."

Bud Leavitt, outdoor columnist for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, is all for aquaculture because it will "virtually eliminate poaching. Low prices and good supply will make poaching unprofitable." Leavitt and fishing pal Ted Williams, better known to some for his fly-casting form than his batting stroke, have hooked and cooked salmon all over the world. The taste of a farm-raised fish "is no different than a fish you catch on a fly on the Miramichi {in New Brunswick}," he said. "In fact, it may be better. These fish are healthy, like cattle, and they've been quiet, not racing from predators."

Not too quiet, however. The tremendous amount of water moving in and out of Broad Cove when the tide is turning gives a current for the fish to swim against and build body tone, and flushes the cove of waste products and uneaten food.

There isn't much uneaten food, however. Several of the company's 50 employes spend their working hours on the cage sites, learning the fishes' eating habits and doling out food by the shovelful at just the right pace so that everybody gets fed but without any leftovers. They also feed a few trash fish that swim into the nets when they're fingerlings, know a good thing when they taste it and grow too big to get out.

The fish (only the salmon) is sometimes "so fresh that it gets to the distributor still in rigor mortis," according to Stevens. If, for example, employes were to harvest a pen full of salmon this morning, tonight the fish would be on their way to Boston by truck, tomorrow morning they would fly out of Logan Airport and on Friday morning, 48 hours out of the water, they could be in any restaurant in the United States, according to Stevens.

The salmon would have been slaughtered right at the floating cage site, brought into the plant by a short boat hop, eviscerated (gutted) and packed in saltwater ice inside insulated shipping boxes that would keep them at 32-34 degrees.

Descended from wild salmon taken in Maine and the Maritimes, most of the salmon start as eggs at company hatcheries in Deblois and on Gardner Lake, although some are bought from other hatcheries, and some Ocean Products smolts are sold to other producers just to keep all supply options open, said Stevens. About 60 percent of the eggs survive as smolts and about 90 percent of the smolts make it all the way through the three-year journey to market size of 9-10 pounds.

The final year and a half are spent in the pens in Broad Cove, where they are fed a mixture of herring, fish meal, krill meal and, when necessary, medicine (yes, salmon get sick, too) ground together at the company's Eastport plant.

The netted pens in which the salmon are raised are 40 feet square by 20 feet deep and are hung from floating frames. When it comes time for harvest, the net is pulled up and with it thousands of fish. Sixteen pens are connected with walkways into what company employes call a cage site; Ocean Products has three side-by-side cage sites in Broad Cove, one across a point in Deep Cove and has plans for 16 more cage sites in waters around Eastport leased from the state.

While conducting a mid-June tour of the cage sites in Broad Cove, Stevens noted that the pens actually have two nets, the inner net to hold the salmon in and an outer net to keep predators out.

"We'll probably get a letter sometime for cruelty to animals," said Stevens. "We won't let the seals eat any of our fish."

Larch Hanson goes to work in Gouldsboro Bay when the tide and sun tell him to, and he returns to his cabin in Steuben when his place of employment disappears again. That may sound confusing to most people, but then few have ever met a professional seaweed harvester.

It was the middle of June and just right for cutting alaria esculenta, which had grown to about 10 feet in length and was in top condition. In another day or two the changing tide would cause inaccessibility at the right time and by the time the tide was right again, snails, surf and the direct summer sun would have caused a deterioration in the crop.

The tide was important because alaria must be harvested when both the sun and tide are low. High sun deteriorates it, of course, and high tide means the rocks on which it grows are covered by water -- and sometimes breakers.

The rock Hanson harvested that morning is unnamed on the nautical charts, perhaps because sometimes it isn't there (when it is, it's in the mouth of the bay several hundred yards from the shore of Corea). At low tide, it is about an acre in size, about 10 feet in elevation and covered with a rainbow's spectrum of sea-plant species.

It is to this rock and several other spots that Hanson takes his boat for alaria. On this beautiful day, he had putt-putted his way for 45 minutes out to the mouth of the bay and was on the rock, dressed in a wet suit, before 8 a.m., for a couple of hours of hard work.

After cutting the seaweed with a serrated knife, he twirled it into 25 bushel-sized plastic laundry baskets, each of which would become four or five pounds of marketable seaweed after drying on racks not unlike those that clothes used to blow on in backyards. The 100-plus pounds he picked would sell for $3.50 per pound to wholesalers, $7 per pound by mail order and about $9.30 a pound packaged in a store, he said. A very good day's pay; on the other hand alaria is at its peak and accessible but a dozen and half days a year at best.

Hanson sells mostly to health-food stores, "not the type that sell pills," he pointed out, "but the type that carry grains and natural foods." He also sells by mail to individuals of the sort who patronize such stores. "Somebody on a macrobiotic diet trying to heal will need 5 percent of their daily diet to be seaweed," he said.

He harvests perhaps 1,000 dried pounds of alaria a year, also long kelp (3,000 pounds would be a good season, he said) and a little bit (300-400 pounds) of digitata kelp, all basically during April-May-June. "July and August are death season for kelps, and snails get to them just like slugs in a garden," he said, although during the summer he can pick a little nori and dulse. Out of season, he gardens ("I'm negotiating for a field to grow grain," he said"), runs the food concession at a couple of fairs and this winter plans to live in Bar Harbor working at one of several possible jobs.

Dulse is the most popular sea vegetable, but Gouldsboro Bay yields nowhere near enough to meet Hanson's demand, so he has to buy from harvesters elsewhere. This displeases him because he worries that others do not match his zeal to guard against contaminants.

For example, his wooden boat is dressed only with linseed oil and is compartmentalized so that gas and oil from the motor (a 25-year-old, 5 1/2-horsepower Johnson that he bought for $100 and rebuilt) cannot taint the seaweed.

After filling his baskets, Hanson uses a tiny skiff to ferry them out, half a dozen at a time, to his heavily laden boat for the long, slow trip home against the wind and waves (which break over the bow and cause a stop to bail). He keeps records of when, where and how much he has harvested.

"It's a renewable resource," he said, "but I can't get the state interested in leasing beds {as Ocean Products leases Broad Cove} so that they aren't overharvested. This bay can support one harvester, but another would be too much."

Hanson became interested in seaweed when he went out with an old couple who harvested sea vegetables for their table, and avocation became vocation almost 10 years ago.

"That's the surface story," he said. "The real story is why does somebody get into a conscious relationship to plants. I grew up growing a garden as a kid, and my father was an extension agent, but that doesn't explain it. Yet, I often feel that this work is grabbing me as much as I'm grabbing it."

Hanson turns 42 in October and the question is, how much longer can a man, no matter how lean and trim, pull on a wet suit, bounce around in a little boat and climb over slippery rocks?

"If I stay focused I feel as if I could do it until I'm 90," said Hanson, who grew up in Minnesota and now appears to live peacefully in the '60s. "It's a question of staying focused."

One would wonder if that is possible, however. As he pushed off with his skiff for the last time before returning home, the surf was crashing over the rock. "Time to go," he said, "It's getting hairy."