For people prone to the lure of the ocean and who enjoy communing with other marine-minded people, there aren’t many gatherings anywhere as engaging as the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.
The forum, held each year at the Samoset Resort, offers a wide variety of topical sessions for the hundreds of people who attend — fishermen and their families, mostly, but also state and federal regulators, politicians, advocates, industry representatives and a few journalists. The 3-day event officially got underway yesterday but, as is the case every year, the meatier sessions and events are scheduled to take place on Friday (today) and Saturday (tomorrow).
This year, there are four topics that stand out in terms of the impact they are having (or soon could have) on Mainers who make their living from the sea, or in what they reveal about the health and vitality of the Gulf of Maine. They are:
1) The state’s efforts to enforce lobster fishing laws. Maine’s $495 million lobster fishery has long had an undercurrent of territorial disputes, the intensity of which ebbs and flows over the span of years. This past year has seen a particularly steep escalation of a ‘trap war’ in the waters between the Blue Hill peninsula and Mount Desert Island, prompting Operation Game Thief to offer $15,000 to anyone who offers Marine Patrol information that helps with the investigation. Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Department of Marine Resources, will address the state’s efforts to step up enforcement when he speaks at 9 a.m. Friday at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association annual meeting.
2) The rebounding scallop fishery in the Gulf of Maine. The recovery over the past decade of the scallop fishery in the gulf’s state and federal waters runs counter to well-known stories about fisheries surging and then slowing to a trickle. Annual catches in state waters have roughly tripled since the mid-2000s, while in the past five years prices offered to fishermen have risen above $10 per pound and continue to climb. Increased competition that has sprung up in the federal Northern Gulf of Maine scallop management area, however, has prompted many Maine fishermen to raise concerns about ensuring the resource is fished sustainably, and to lobby for tighter catch restrictions on larger boats from out of state. Regulators and fishermen will hold a session on the topic at 1 p.m. Friday.
3) Possible protections for deep sea corals off MDI. In 2014, researchers found “dense hanging gardens” of coral in the gulf along Outer Schoodic Ridge and southwest of Mount Desert Rock. The New England Fishery Management Council now is mulling possible protections for the coral and similar formations found at Georges Bank and in southern New England, which have been known to serve as habitat for other environmentally and economically significant marine species. One such option under consideration is a complete fishing ban in the identified coral habitat areas. DMR, which has proposed to exempt the lobster and crab fisheries from any such ban, is seeking input from fishermen and will host a session on the topic at 9 a.m. Saturday.
4) The growth of Maine’s seaweed industry. Seaweed harvesting, long considered an oddity among commercial marine industries in and out of Maine, is emerging as a more mainstream economic pursuit, due to significant increases in harvest amounts since the early 2000s. The value of annual statewide harvests routinely languished below $100,000 for several decades but has been above $500,000 in each of the past six years. Where the industry — both its aquaculture and wild-harvest sectors — is headed will be the topic of a session starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. What the seminar description doesn’t say is that a lawsuit filed in Washington County over shoreline harvesting access rights stands to play a significant role in how this industry might expand in the coming years. Many observers believe the contentious issue will end up being argued in the state supreme court.