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Documenting the Working Coast of Maine

By Melissa Waterman There are two coasts here in Maine. The first coast, as described by John Gillis in his book The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, is made up of commercial harbors peopled by men and women who make their living from the sea and whose culture derives from that hard and perilous work. The second coast is a place of nautically-themed restaurants, lifestyle shops and residential developments with names like Coastal Vista, “built up around the nostalgia for the working waterfront,” Gillis wrote.

Galen Koch, 33, is dedicated to preserving the stories from Maine’s working coast. “ I’ve interviewed a lot of fishermen. They don’t fit into stereotypes. They have a totally different understanding of the natural world, lots of depth and nuance,” she said. She set out to capture their stories in a multi-year oral history and multimedia exhibit project she called The First Coast.

Amanda Lyons wormweed harvesting, Trescott. All images by Greta Rybus, used with permission.

Koch grew up in Stonington, although not in a fishing family. She graduated from Skidmore College then attended the Salt Institute in Portland where she studied radio production. After graduating in 2014 and doing freelance radio reporting around the country, she realized that she wanted to stay in Maine. The Portland Waterfront Alliance hired her to produce 12 multimedia stories illustrating the city’s working waterfront. Meeting with fishermen, lobstermen, dock workers and others, Koch quickly recognized she had found her passion.

With financial support from the Kindling Fund and her own crowdfunding efforts, Koch rehabbed her stepfather’s old Airstream trailer and set out to document stories found in other Maine harbors, specifically Bar Harbor, Stonington, Jonesport and Beals Island, and Lubec. She towed the trailer to each town and settled in for weeks and months to capture the tales of those who make their living from the sea.

Sonny Beal, Beals Island

“These waterfronts are so similar but so different,” Koch reflected. “All have their own personality. Jonesport doesn’t cater to tourists. It’s definitely a working town. Stonington, on the other hand, is a huge lobstering port and also a tourist destination.” In each place, Koch found people eager to tell stories about the past and present, from fishermen lamenting the loss of traditional fisheries to young seaweed harvesters and aquaculturists shaping their own lives on the water.

Koch particularly enjoyed listening to the older fishermen. “I was struck by the deep knowledge they have of the places where they fish and the changes they have seen. There’s the perspective that there’s a battle going on between fishermen and environmentalists. I think that’s so strange. They are part of the environment, not separate from it,” she said.

Since 2020, The First Coast has been supported by The Fund for Maine Islands, distributed by College of the Atlantic and Island Institute. The first photo exhibit, featuring images by Greta Rybus and accompanying sound stories premiered in October 2019 at the Lubec Brewing Company. The latest, featuring stories and images from Jonesport and Beals Island, also by Greta Rybus, was exhibited at the Peabody Memorial Library from January to April 2022.

Charlie Alley, Jonesport

Koch is now involved in producing a podcast called 'From the Sea Up' for the Island Institute. The podcast, which begins its second season this September, focuses on stories from Maine’s coastal and island communities. Along with colleagues at the Island Institute, Maine Sea Grant and College of the Atlantic, she is part of the team that manages the Mapping Ocean Stories project, which includes a ten-week class at COA and paid internships for students working on stories, exhibits, and GIS-mapping related to the lived experiences of Maine’s remote coastal and island residents.

In addition, Koch has created Maine Sound + Story, an online database featuring oral histories from across the state, radio stories, and curated images of Maine’s people and places. “We wanted to have the collections be useful to academics, historians, anyone. The long-form interviews are all transcribed. I’m really excited about it,” Koch said.

“I see myself in a communications role, sharing these stories through sound installations, the podcast, and writing. I hope that people who have moved here are listening and want to know more about the culture of this place. Why do you live here? How will you protect it?

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