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Guest Column: Working waterfronts not just a quaint picture

In 2039, driving to Orr’s Island likely will look a lot different. F/V Restless might not be moored off the right side of the bridge, and there probably won’t be any rickety floats hanging on to the rocks. The ocean will probably seem a little higher all around; maybe Cook’s Lobster & Ale House on Bailey Island won’t have lobster boats moored around it. And further down the road Mackerel Cove will probably look like any pretty cove with no wharfs, no Glendon’s, no lobster boats cluttering up the picture. Nubble, one of Maine’s most photographed buildings, won’t be covered with buoys and there won’t be any more pickup trucks along Abner Point Road. What will Land’s End look like? Will there be any lobster boats going by for tourists to snap pictures of? What’s it going to smell like? What will it sound like? Who will live here? Imagining Orr’s Island or Port Clyde or Cutler without fishing boats conjures a sense of solastalgia, a word used to describe the distress felt by residents after a natural disaster or environmental change.

Professor Glenn Albrecht coined the word in 2003 and defined it as a “sadness a person feels when their home environment is desolated in ways they cannot control.” It’s like being homesick in a familiar place because that place is no longer familiar. For example, residents felt solastalgia in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed many homes and landmarks that gave the community its sense of place.

Solastalgia is an apt word to describe how fishing community residents feel when hotels and McMansions go up in an area usually used for fishing. This feeling can also arise in the summer when coastal Mainers play host to thousands of tourists who infiltrate restaurants and general stores. A sense of normalcy returns in early September, usually, but Maine is becoming a travel destination year-round. In a recent article in Mainebiz, Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, said that he doesn’t see any signs of a saturation point for new development in Portland: “All the new capacity is being absorbed… Eventually there has to be a tipping point. But I don’t believe we see that point yet.” People in Maine fishing communities can see the saturation point staring them in the face. They feel it every time a parcel of waterfront land is sold to a developer or summer resident. They see it when others use the fishing industry as an advertising gimmick to achieve their agenda, like generic lobster boats appearing in political ads or new Portland condos that advertise proximity to the working waterfront.

How do you measure the distance from where we are today to the point of saturation? What’s on the other side of that tipping point? And what is the route back after you reach saturation? In an effort to gain more dollars, we are diminishing the very reason visitors come to Maine. At some point in the future, if we continue on this path, Maine will become an empty shell of what it once was: Cook’s Lobster & Ale House with no lobster, coves with no fishing boats, and wharves with no character. But how do you measure that loss when it is incremental, happens over time, and is felt more than it is tangible?

The term “cultural appropriation” was once reserved for academics but is now in the mainstream vernacular. Cultural appropriation is borrowing a tradition or trend from another culture. People who have never worked a day in their life who wear Carhartt are borrowing from blue collar culture; this is an innocent example of cultural appropriation. Groups or companies often appropriate from the fishing industry to achieve their goals without any regard for the impact or consequences to fishermen and their communities. A hotel being built on the waterfront side of Commercial Street in Portland wants to offer its customers views of fishermen and their boats but doesn’t recognize that their visitors might not like the smell of bait, and that the high room costs could alter the economics of the area, making it harder for fishermen to work and fish at all.

A working waterfront is not just a quaint picture. It is a composite of people, boats, gear and traditions that are inextricably linked to a place. And that place is adjacent to the ocean. Bit by bit the familiar smells and noise of Maine’s working waterfronts are evaporating. Solastalgia is taking place in Portland, on Bailey Island, in a small harbor near you. It is time to step up and defend something which, once gone, cannot be replaced.

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