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In The News

Behind every fishing boat is a strong working waterfront
February 29, 2004, Maine Fishermen's Forum, Village Soup
By Anthony Ronzio & David Munson

ROCKLAND: Rep. Deb McNeil remembers the working piers, the sounds and smells of the Rockland fishing fleet unloading swelled holds of herring and redfish.

Though offensive to some, those smells and sounds of commercial fishing meant business was good for local harvesters.

As a member of the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, McNeil has been an advocate and sounding board for issues affecting the local fishing industry.

She's seen the bottom fall out of most species, and lobstering take up as the Midcoast's most important cash crop. She is also a strong proponent of preserving working waterfronts, as an economic resource and a cultural link to Maine's past.

On Thursday, the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum will host an all-day session on the vitality of working waterfronts, and what measures exist to protect them.

The forum's board of directors felt working waterfronts, and coastal access on the whole, was the most pressing subject facing Maine's fishermen and it needed to be the marquee issue, said Chilloa Young, the forum's coordinator.

"It's such a prevalent issue, with so much of the coast owned by out-of-staters who like the view, but may not like the lobsterman or clammer working near them," Young said.

Count McNeil among those who believe a strong working waterfront is an important asset, especially for Rockland, and responsibility exists on the state and local levels to preserve it.

"I don't want to look out my window and just see white sails," said McNeil.


Who's got the money?
But with all this emphasis on funding, the question of responsibility is rarely asked. Some, like McNeil, said it's government's role to aid commercial fishermen when access is threatened.

But critics have said investing public funds in commercial piers subsidizes the industry, and gives access only to fishermen, and not the general public.

That argument was heard loud and clear regarding Rockland's takeover of the municipal fish pier, after the last private operator left due to heavy financial losses.

"It's a tussle," said Connors, the state planner. He prefers the word "investment" to "subsidy," since preserving access keeps fishermen working, allowing those dependent on the access to contribute to the community as an economic and social force.

"The return on the investment isn't counted in dollars," Connors said.

But it is counted in feet, as in how many can be added to the rapidly shrinking Maine working waterfront. A December 2002 study by Coastal Enterprises Inc. revealed only 25 of the state's 7,000 miles of shoreline were traditional working waterfront.

That's one reason the preservation of 85 feet of commercial access in York last year made statewide headlines. The other was its novelty: a joint purchase by a lobsterman and the York Land Trust, the first time a land conservation group had invested in a working waterfront.

Conservation easements through the land trust ensured the pier would remain commercial, and Connors said the purchase has opened up other land trusts to the possibility of protecting more.

Opportunities for preservation can't be missed, said Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, who serves on the state's new Working Waterfront Coalition, an advocacy group formed last summer.

She said pressure on islands makes working waterfront preservation a community survival issue.

"Ensuring preservation of working waterfronts on islands like Vinalhaven is ensuring the future economic viability of the island," she said in an e-mail to VillageSoup.

The coalition has appromixately 40 members, she said, and tries to "agitate, publicize and organize" behind the various methods of preservation.

"I think it has come to a crucial point, where the coalition and members of the fishing community need to create a strong consensus around which tools could be used to preserve the working waterfront," she wrote.

Connors said unique access needs for each community on the coast require many solutions, and having many groups involved with the effort provides needed flexibility.

Unfortunately, the problem of Maine's vanishing coastline access is a boa constrictor instead of a viper, with the squeeze coming so slowly local planners can fail to recognize the problem until later.

"You can be laissez-faire about it," said Connors. "It's a slow encroachment. At some point, (a town) is going to decide whether public response is needed."

Public response usually means investment of tax dollars, whether locally from property taxes or from the state pool through grants or loans.

In the 2002 CEI study, 23 of the 25 towns profiled had either spent or sought funds for working waterfronts in the past.

Investment is also measured in municipal zoning and land use regulations on the waterfront. Perhaps Maine's best example of working waterfront planning is Portland, said Connors.

Portland has all the attributes, he said: strong waterfront zoning that protects access for commercial and marine-related uses, investment in cruise and dock facilities for recreation, and a moratorium on development passed through a citizen initiative.

"(The city) did this intent on preserving the character of its waterfront," said Connors, including generating the most important asset any working waterfront needs to survive: community support.

Though access needs may differ, coastal towns need the support of the community to ensure the success of preservation efforts.

It goes for everywhere, Connors said, from "Portland to Friendship."


Rep. Deb McNeil

Jim Connors, of the Maine Coastal Program, said there's only one thing to ensure working waterfront preservation: "A healthy, thriving, fishery," he said. Behind him is the poster for the Working Waterfront Coalition, which reads: "Behind every fishing boat is a strong working waterfront." (Photo by Anthony Ronzio)

For the complete text of this story please see: http://waldo.VillageSoup.com/Government/Story.cfm?storyID=21018

Article © Copyright 2004 Village Soup.


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