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Guest Column: Protecting the Future of Downeast Maine's fishing heritage

Alexa Dayton is the executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. MCCF photo.

For almost 20 years, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (MCCF) has worked to protect fishing forever in eastern Maine’s coastal communities, and as the new Executive Director, I plan to double down on this vision.

Back in 2003, a group of fishermen and other leaders felt compelled to do something about what they observed to be a decadal-level fishing-down of the food web in the Gulf of Maine. They recognized the future loss of species and access diversity, and the importance of stewardship for successful community-based fisheries. MCCF was conceived with a novel grassroots approach to connect this on-the-water insight with management at a scale consistent with the regional habitat and community structure. Although a lot has changed since 2003, our mission and approach feel even more compelling and urgent today.

I’m grateful to the staff, board, and advisors for keeping an eye on this mission. The institutional knowledge and continued commitment of the community is invaluable, and although it can sound like a broken record sometimes, this persistence has made us who we are. We have a dedicated long-serving staff of nine people with core skills in fisheries policy, science, and education - plus Captain Leroy Weed, the host and star of our Ask Leroy! show. Our dedicated Board of Directors includes local fishermen, scientists, community members, and fishery managers, each bringing deep local knowledge, as well as state, national and international expertise.

How do we fulfill our mission? While MCCF is both responding to what’s happening today, as a non-profit we also stay focused on the long-term vision for our resources and communities. Here are a few examples of the questions and projects we have led or helped with recently:

What is the distribution and patterns of scallop larval (spat) supply? In collaboration with commercial scallop draggers, divers, and growers, Hurricane Island Foundation, Bates College, ME DMR, and Sea Grant we set out 40 scallop larval collectors in September to resolve questions the fishing industry has about competition from the aquaculture sector in collecting wild larvae for growing out in scallop lease areas, and questions the aquaculture sector has about where they can set collectors for reliable, perhaps non-competitive, larval supply.

How do we prepare the next generation? MCCF’s Eastern Maine Skippers Program has worked with eastern Maine high schools and teachers in some of the most fishing-dependent communities to support hands-on marine biology and field trip-based community projects. In addition to retrieving the scallop spat collectors this coming February, students are exploring northern pink shrimp biology and potential for culture, and next spring will add in a clam flat seeding project, partnering with Downeast Institute (DEI). The Skippers program is more important than ever; we have an opportunity to teach kids scientific inquiry in a fun way that sticks with them for life. For the young adults in our community, we added a new “Deck Hand 101” course this spring. With business training available locally, we can help them gear up for a successful future in the ‘blue economy’, whether it’s fishing or something else.

The Eastern Maine Skippers program gives high school students real fisheries issues to analyze. MCCF photo.

What are the economic impacts to the individual fishermen associated with changing lobster catch levels, costs, markets, new gear and proposed rules aimed at risk reduction in the lobster fishery? In collaboration with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), we are contributing our best available socio-economic science to answer these questions and inform management discussions. We get a lot of questions about this issue from the community, public, and politicians. Our role as a creative solutions broker, source of unbiased information, and knowledge of historical context is more critical than ever.

Bring back the alewives and everything else will follow? Could it really be that simple? MCCF along with other members of the River Herring Network and Downeast Fisheries Partnership including MCHT, Manomet and Tidal Bay plus Downeast Salmon Federation, DEI, SCEC, Sea Grant, and COA, share information across watersheds and plan projects together, so that alewife restoration and harvest access is now also tied to stewardship and monitoring.

What are we seeing for early signals of change in the eastern Gulf of Maine? Thanks to long term collaborators including NOAA NEFSC, NERACOOS, and DMR, we plan to expand our collaborative research programs to additional marine species and establish a sentinel network of coastal ocean and estuarine monitoring aimed at detecting early signals of change.

When does Atlantic Avenue become Atlantic Ocean Avenue? Let’s face it. Our own building site in Stonington is subject to the realities of rising sea levels. We plan to make this a story of choices, innovation, and community-led planning. Borne out of necessity, MCCF’s physical site provides a novel education platform to showcase the natural resource-based economies and cultural heritage and community values of eastern Maine.

MCCF still has plenty of work to do over the next 20 years to protect fishing forever in eastern Maine’s coastal communities. How do we provide access to existing, shifting and future fisheries? Retaining the owner-operator model is critical and shapes who we are both on the water and as a society. Looking ahead it is my hope that we will get to a point where we holistically look at licensing and entry program reforms with our long-term collaborators and partners.

We have seen how access to fisheries influences the way an entire generation thinks about their future, thereby shaping the culture of the community. This is a great opportunity for us to showcase Maine leadership in sustainable community fisheries for the world.

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