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People of the Coast: Willis Spear

It’s not hard to spot Willis Spear in a crowd. A weathered man with broad shoulders and rugged hands, Spear, 67, exudes a quiet authority in any situation. For more than 30 years he has lent his voice to the longstanding struggle of Portland’s fishermen to maintain a toehold on the waterfront of Maine’s most populous city. That struggle has become even more pointed in the last few years as yet another round of major waterfront development proposals has erupted in the city. “Back in 1983 the city lifted its regulations so that the condos could be built on Chandlers Wharf. We fought against that. In 1987 there was the people’s referendum that declared there would be no non-marine development along this three-mile area,” Spear explained. The resulting Waterfront Central Zone provided guidance to Portland city officials at a time when the city was at the tail end of a modest real estate boom. Regulations in the zone precluded residential development along the waterfront and any non-marine uses on buildings’ first floor. Groundfishing was still the mainstay of Portland’s waterfront and the Portland Fish Exchange was thriving. The small and compact working waterfront was home to multiple businesses all linked to the fish trade. The wharves, however, were largely owned by private interests. Some, like Widgery’s Wharf, had been in the same family for generations. The expense of maintaining these wharves caused some wharf owners in later years to advocate for relaxing the Waterfront Central Zone regulations to permit a certain percentage of non-water dependent uses to locate on the water. “When they built on Fishermen’s Wharf, they said that fishermen could stay forever,” Spear said. “But bit by bit access went away. Of the 15 fishermen that started out there, now there are none.” Fishermen rely not only on space to berth their vessels but on space on land to offload their catch, store their gear, and, less frequently these days, dry and mend their nets. When Portland’s waterfront was the home of fishermen, oil tankers, and Bath Iron Works, the fishermen’s needs were easily met. As the waterfront became a mecca for tourists, restaurants, retail shops, and more recently, office space, those empty spaces on land became more and more valuable. “That lot over there,” Spear said, gesturing toward a tract of land next to the Portland Coast Guard Station, “it was used by seiners to dry their nets in the field. Now Marriott is using it for the valet parking. They block any trucks getting in or out.” Spear’s deep affection for Portland’s at times grubby and always vital working waterfront is evident. He came to fishing as a young man, “fooling around with traps” at Willard Beach in South Portland with fishermen from Long Island. Willard Beach had been the city’s first fishing port because it was closer to the open ocean and provided deep water at any tide. Fishing families from Long Island came in from the island to stay ashore during the school year so that their children could attend local schools. “I got hooked at nine and got my lobster license at 12,” Spear said with a smile. “I rowed at first and then got an outboard. Those Long Island fishermen taught me. They were good people.” Spear has done many things on the water during his lifetime. He groundfished for 30 years as well as worked on seismic vessels, which took him around the globe. In his early days, Portland harbor was redolent with the smells of its fishing industry. “Willitt and Daggett had a number of smokehouses for haddock around the harbor. There was a redfish factory. Every wharf had something happening. The harbor was filthy. You could smell it early on coming in from sea.” Activities along a working waterfront evolve over the years. Where once there were large groundfishing vessels in Portland, lobster boats now dominate. The bulk of the catch coming across the wharves these days is lobster and the baitfish required to catch lobster. Fishermen, no matter what species they harvest, need access to both water and land. As Spear notes, “We’ve been here for 400 years. We need access to wharves. Portland is the last continuously operating working waterfront in America.” The incremental loss of space has definitely made Spear and his fellow fishermen unwilling to lose a single remaining inch of access. “That alleyway on the Thomas Block . It’s been deeded access for fishermen from the 1700s. But then the owners started ticketing lobstermen for loading and unloading.” Presently Spear and a group of local fishermen, Portland artists, nonprofit organizations and others are contesting numerous proposals for hotel and office space developments directly on the water along Commercial Street. Among these are the 300-unit hotel and condominium project approved in July for the former Rufus Deering Lumber Company land across from Becky’s Diner and a three-story 18,000-square-foot office building/hotel complex on Fishermen’s Wharf. The Portland Planning Board would have to provide a variance for a non-water dependent use on the Fishermen’s Wharf property. Spear is adamantly opposed to the project. “You have to take the hard line, as hard as you can. There is no middle ground here. In 2010 we fought about having any non-water-dependent uses in the Central Waterfront Zone. We settled on a 49%/51 % split and we’ve regretted it ever since. The rich man wants to be on the water and have a view. But hotels and offices can be located anywhere. We can’t go anywhere else.” Spear remains optimistic that in the future, Portland could regain its standing as a major fishing port, perhaps not in his lifetime but in that of future generations. “I went handlining with a friend a week ago. We were catching so much cod and haddock and then throwing it back. I hadn’t seen anything like that in 30 years,” he said. “So I have cautious optimism. If you’re a fisherman you have to be optimistic to get up and go in the morning. I want to see the kids enjoy what I enjoy.”

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