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Remarkable People: Shelia Dassatt of the Down East Lobstermen's Association

First published in Landings, June, 2013.

Sheila Dassatt comes by her interest in the fate of lobstermen naturally. She was born into a lobstering family in Stonington, where much of her family still lives. In 1959, when times got tough for lobstermen Downeast, the family moved to Belfast so her dad could go to work on the tugboats. "Dad went to work on the tugs. His whole life was fishing or tugs. Dad never gave up on boats," said Dassatt.Her dad, Corliss A. Holland, who died at age 88 in 2011, is well-known in Maine lobster boat racing circles for many wins in his fabled Holland 32, The Red Baron, built by his son Glenn at the Holland Boat Shop. Sheila has worked for the Down East Lobstermen's Association (DELA) for 10 years now. She never applied for the job, but was drafted at a DELA annual meeting she attended with husband Mike, a lobsterman. She was hired by acclaim at the same meeting to be the group's secretary-treasurer. In 2006, she moved up to executive director. Until DELA, she had been working in the office of the tugboat company then called Portland Tugboat (aka McAllister Towing) in Belfast for six years. Prior to the job at the tugboat office, she had been lobstering with her dad, and husband Mike Dassatt. "I was there (Portland Tugboat) for six years, I was grateful for the job, it was a good job," she said. "But I was always looking out the window, watching the boat come in. My heart was out in the boat with Mike and dad." They fished from Mike's boat, the Anna Marie, a 32-foot Osmond Beal wooden boat from Beal's Island. "Three of us went out on that boat - we did it to survive." Except for a couple of years when she and Mike each had a truck and did tandem long-haul jobs, Sheila's work has always been marine-related. She started out at her brother Glenn's shop, then she spent 10 years at Hamilton Marine. After that she and Mike drove trucks for two years, doing convoys to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "We would park at Dysart's and the trucks would be judged for various things. We have trophies. One year we won for the shine! Sometimes the kids would ride in the convoy," she said. "We used to say, 'we can't ride together, so I follow him!'" A heart problem ended Mike's trucking career and Sheila's with it. She has experienced tragedy—a sister born before her died as an infant while her father was at sea in a lobster smack. Sheila named her daughter Christie, after her deceased sister. Daughter Christie, now 35, is a Maine Maritime Academy graduate who used to run a tug out of Portland. Christie's older brother, Travis was killed in a freak accident on a fork-lift when he was 8 years old. Yet Sheila retains a positive attitude and loves her work for DELA. She works tirelessly on issues for the members and to promote the organization. She doesn't see the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA) as competition, but as another organization trying to do the same kind of work for its members. "DELA and the MLA are working together. We have common cause," Dassatt said. "My job is to represent my association of fishermen and if it happens we don't agree with MLA, I have to be the voice for them. When it comes to the lobster fishery, we have to have a meeting of the industry first. Sometimes we don't agree, and we have to hammer it out and come to agreement." "What they (lobstermen) really want is that you live the part," she said. "My family—we fish, we work on boats. We have the same background as the members. We are able to communicate with the fishermen and their families." "I know for a fact that anyone involved with the associations puts time plus into that representation. You live it. It has to be in your heart to stick with it and care," Dassatt said. The reason a separate association exists, she explains, is that Downeast harvesters have some unique issues. “If the economy fails Downeast, there are no other resources to fall back on," Dassatt said. "So sometimes, if we have to take a strong stand, it's for survival. Sometimes people from other parts don't understand how serious it is there." Most members of DELA have hailed from Washington and Hancock counties, but Belfast area fishermen are increasingly joining up. In addition, the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine in Orono, and the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington are both DELA members. The family interest in boats continues as well. Her ten-year-old grandson Kaden has been on one of the boatbuilding teams for two years now at the boatbuilding challenge held in Belfast harbor during Harborfest. "They have to build a boat , put it in the water, row it around and see if it's seaworthy. Last year the builders named it Kaden and they gave it to him when it was over," said Dassatt. Besides her DELA duties, Dassatt serves as chairman of the Lobster Research, Education and Development Board (RED) (funded by revenue from the lobster license plate), on the Board of Directors of the Lobster Institute, the subcommittee of the Lobster Advisory Council and the Executive Board of the Maine Fishermen's Forum. She has co-hosted the U.S.-Canadian Town Meeting and worked on the marketing bill for the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Husband Mike is the secretary-treasurer of DELA and there is no other staff. "It's just me and Mike, the directors and the wives," she said. "I get asked a lot about divisiveness lately," said Dassatt. "Sometimes lobstermen don't know who to trust any more. I always say, we're all fishermen. We at the DELA say what we mean and we mean what we say. If they wouldn't trust me in 2006, they will trust me in 2013 because I never let them down or said one thing and did another. It's not 'us and them' —we're all in it together. If the price is low for some, it's low for us, too. I have no personal agenda in this. I just want to continue this for the next generation so it's still available. My 10-year-old grandson has his license and I believe the associations are just trying to hang onto the independent family trade. We don't want to end up with a corporate fishery."

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