Over the years dwindling fish stocks and strict federal regulations have taken a toll on Maine’s ground fishing industry. Now there are only three ports left in the state where commercial fisherman can catch haddock, cod, flounder and other species of ground fish in local waters. Port Clyde is one of the ports that remain. It’s also where a determined group of fishermen have formed some unusual alliances to try to rebuild their fishery and revive their traditional way of life.
Port Clyde is a small village where almost everyone is a fisherman or related to one. Dougie Anderson has been fishing there since he first went out with his grandfather when he was five years old. He says that when Port Clyde’s waters were teeming with fish, “we fished on them primarily when they were spawning because that was when they were thickest. They were easy to catch and vulnerable and you could get 10 thousand in a small boat. We caught them when they were spawning and that was wrong. There’s been a lot of mistakes in the fishing business.”
One of those mistakes says Anderson is that by the 1970s the government began paying people to fish so Americans could compete with the large international foreign fishing fleets. “All of sudden we got a brand new fleet coming here with more horse power and technology. Virtually the fish had no place to hide.”
In those days Port Clyde had several large fish processing plants, three general stores and businesses were thriving. But that’s gone now. Years of over fishing and increased federal regulation took a toll on Maine fishermen and most of the ground fish ports in the state went out of business. Fishermen in Port Clyde managed to hang on until a few years ago when the government cut down the days they were allowed to fish once again and at the same fuel prices skyrocketed.
Port Clyde fisherman Gary Libby. Photo: Raviya Ismail and Earthjustice
“When the fuel price spiked that was almost the last straw right there,” recalls Glenn Libby, a 40-year Port Clyde fisherman. “You weren’t making much money, you getting behind on your bills. It was easy to think about giving up. The few fishermen that remained are stuck with these boats that are now pretty much worthless because nobody wants them.
At this time stakeholders in the New England fishing industry were meeting to determine how fishermen were going to comply with new federal mandates to create a sustainable fishery. It was in those meetings with other fishermen, policy makers and environmentalists that Glenn Libby and the fishermen from Port Clyde began to come up with new ideas. One idea was to do their own processing and also market their fish directly to the public so they would get a better price. Libby recalls a lot of resistance, including his own. “We were like, ‘are you kidding me? Marketing and processing we don’t know anything about that! That’s going to be too much work. We won’t be able to go fishing.’"
Larry Wood fillets a freshly caught fish at the Port Clyde fish prodcessing co-op. Photo: Raviya Ismail and Earthjustice
But the idea stuck. The Port Clyde fishermen formed a coop and like their farming neighbors who delivered quantities of fresh produce to customers each week they began to deliver freshly caught seafood to be picked up by those who signed up and paid for it in advance. It was a humble beginning.
“We started out with shrimp,” says Libby. “We had 30 people signed up for a five pound bag of shrimp each week. That was more money than they would pay on the side of the road but they knew they were supporting the local fleet. And you started to realize that there’s a lot of people that want this local food.”
Last year the Port Clyde cooperative opened their own fish processing plant. A few men stand around a table and fillet cod. When they are done they vacuum pack the fish and send it out to farmer’s markets, health food stores and restaurants along the east coast. Libby helps run the operation, which has grown from two to 23 employees since it opened a year ago.
Crab meat from Port Clyde Fresh Catch has grown in popularity with local chefs like the Liberty Hotel's Joseph Margate, who uses it to make Jonah Crab Salad. Photo: Liberty Hotel
Most of the sales so far come from selling weekly shares of fish delivered to the public at farmer’s markets. But Port Clyde Fresh Catch –as it is now known—is also attractive to a growing number of chefs who are responding to the demand for local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. In the kitchen at the liberty hotel in Boston Chef Joseph Margate is tasting the crab cake mixture. He says, “It’s the sweetest crab I’ve ever had.”
Margate bought the crab from the Port Clyde fishermen and says he orders fish from them whenever he can. It’s better quality, its good for business, and “it’s boat to table.” “To put that your fish comes from Port Clyde is a better story than just ‘Atlantic halibut,” says Margate. “It’s a better story between the guest and the server. ”
So far Port Clyde Fresh Catch is not making much of a profit but business is growing. John Sackton, the editor of Seafood News, says because of greater restrictions on fishing, what is happening in Port Clyde may work as a model for many small boat fishermen struggling to stay in the industry. “The fishermen don’t have the ability to make up their business by way of volume, which is the old mentality,” says Sackton. “That’s what’s leading some of the fishermen to think about adding value, handling the fish better. By making it a more valuable product it allows them to stay on the water and stay in the business.”
The fishermen in Port Clyde have created a new business model and part of that model includes changing the way they fish. The goal is to fish sustainably and help restore the fishery.
Back at the Port Clyde harbor Glenn Libby’s brother Gary Libby shows off his new environmentally conscious “Seven inch cod end” fishing net. “It’s the very end of the net where the fish end up,” he explains. “It’s larger than the legal size mesh to let smaller fish out. It will hopefully be more sustainable and rebuild the fish stocks at a faster rate and recover fishing so that we’re not the last fishermen in Port Clyde.”
Gary Libby and the fishermen in Port Clyde have teamed up with environmental groups that historically have been at odds with them. But they all have found they share a common goal—they want to restore the fishery. Peter Baker of Pew Environment Group is helping to fund the effort of fishermen he has “known inPort Clyde for a couple of years now.” He notes, “they have a real commitment for trying something new. At every turn they are trying to figure out how to do things the right way. It’s really a forward thinking way that built out of necessity. The only way we are going to make it is fish smarter rather than fish harder.”
The Fishermen in Port Clyde say they are starting to see greater numbers of fish in the waters here again but Glenn Libby says the changes they are making now will take generations. “I’ve got a 15-year-old grandson and all he wants to do is go fishing and if we don’t have a viable business he is not going to be able to do it. If there’s enough of us doing things like this we can turn the tide but its gonna take a lot of us.”
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Five
Rough Waters: The Ongoing Fight Over Regulating New England Fisheries" is a multi-part series produced by 89.7 WGBH Radio.
Phillip Martin – senior investigative reporter
Rachel Gotbaum – reporter
Steve Young – editor and executive producer
Katie Broida – photographer and researcher
Nic Campos – researcher
Alan Mattes - engineer