By Shelley Wigglesworth
If you don’t think commercial fishermen are an endangered species, think again.
I have been very vocal over the years about my feelings on the commercial fishing industry being in jeopardy, and highlighting the importance of just what an integral part the industry plays in not only the economy, but the infrastructure as a whole, not only in my town but also in coastal towns across America.
As someone with deep ties to our community and the fishing community in particular, I am in a unique position working as a mate on a commercial fishing vessel and being a journalist. I see so much firsthand that I hope the general public will take into account when I write about it. So here I go again, with more food for thought on an issue that is near and dear to my heart.
To anyone who really wants to support the local economy, please start by supporting local fishermen. Support them in all of their endeavors and their diversification efforts. Think about it. If fishing was not in jeopardy, many commercial fishermen would not be doing maritime-related and other business venues.
Commercial fishermen help us all live better. Fishermen — and lobstermen in particular in Maine — are a crucial part of the local economy. Think of all the businesses that rely on fishermen to survive: restaurants, fish markets, stores, seafood processors, truckers that transport seafood, bait dealers, fuel companies for boats and to fuel the trucks that deliver fish, marine mechanics, boat builders, fishing gear manufacturers and much more.
In addition to choosing local over foreign-sourced fish whenever possible, there are other ways to support local fishermen and their families, all the while strengthening the local economy. I will list some of those at the end of this piece. Before I do, I would just like to remind folks of the never-ending rules and regulations commercial fishermen face.
Restricting catch and the number of fishing days in an industry where many days to fish are already lost due to dangerous conditions at sea is detrimental. In addition to this, fishermen are regularly forced to change or stop using certain gear, such as lobstermen being forced to change their rope to avoid potentially tangling right whales. According to National Marine Fisheries Service data on rope removed from whales, there has been only one case of a right whale confirmed in Maine lobster gear in 2002, and this whale was last seen alive and gear free in 2017. Once again, as I type this, lobstermen are being forced to change lines to a 50 percent vertical line reduction (¾ toppers on all gear outside of 3 miles = 0.75 [weak rope] x 0.31 [1700-pound rope reduction] X 0.50 [50 percent vertical line reduction] = 11.6 percent + 50 percent vertical line reduction = 61.5 percent reduction.)
This change does not come without a price tag for lobstermen, not to mention the time they have to put in to comply, reducing days to fish on their own dime. When government regulations prove ineffective, the government creates new methods for fishermen to implement. They get paid to do this whether the methods and regulations work or fail. Fishermen do not.
Other restrictions include where, when and how much fish can be landed, along with permit fees with more limitations. New equipment requirements and new ways to report landings with technology, which is constantly being upgraded and changed is also an ongoing issue.
For example, Vessel Trip Reporting electronically is mandatory for charter ground fishermen but it only works on Apple products. If you don’t have an Apple product you must buy one and use it or you will be fined for not reporting your catch. If you do not report your daily catch within 24 hours you will be fined. However, if the government system is down and they don’t return your phone calls within 24 hours, they do not get fined. These may seem like small things to non-fishermen, but these things are constant, they add up, and are completely off balance.
The bottom line and reality of it all is this: There are more regulators in the fishing industry than there are fishermen in the waters; and unlike the regulators, fishermen do not get paid when it is too rough to fish. Unlike the regulators, there are no paid sick days, holidays, health insurance, vacations, payment even when their methods are proven to fail, monetary bonuses or benefits. Please keep this in mind.
Getting back to my suggestions on supporting commercial fishermen, here are just a few which I have mentioned before. I hope folks keep my plea in mind when it comes to our connection to and reliance on commercial fishermen. It is worth repeating and fighting for. Once our infrastructure is gone it’s gone for good, and it will hurt us all.
- Purchase from a year round local fish buyer/market. Do not go to the wharf and seek out a lobsterman unloading and ask to buy direct from them or ask them for “a good deal” on lobster. It is no deal for the fishermen who are still working for the day and have a quota to fill for year-round local buyers. (Would you like someone showing up at your job when you have work to finish and asking for a deal on your goods and services?)
- Buy from a fishing family farm stand or locally owned and operated smaller scale fish market. You can also purchase recycled fishing rope baskets, floor mats and other crafts made with rope from local lobstermen.
- In addition to purchasing lobsters from fishing family stands, choose to dine at fishing family restaurants. Consider doing business with fishermen who have diversified — many have done so to be able to supplement or sustain lobstering income by snow plowing in the winter, selling cut firewood or providing other services such as woodworking or fishing charters in the summer.
- Attend meetings and elections and vote in favor of supporting and preserving working waterfronts and fishermen’s access to the ocean.
- Do not complain about the smell of bait, the sound of boats, bell buoys or foghorns, or the blocking of your view in commercial fishing harbors. Commercial fishermen have been here for centuries and their way of life is in jeopardy. Do not park in fishermen-only designated spots and then complain when you get blocked in.
- When it comes to buoys nailed to buildings and porches, please remember any buoys that are “found” belong to fishermen and can be identified by individual color schemes and numbers. If you find buoys or other gear washed ashore, please drop it off at the bait sheds at the local wharves. If you choose to hang onto “your” property instead, don’t be surprised if a fisherman walks up and takes it — after all, it is their property.
- Support scholarship programs for children and family members of fishermen. The Maine Fishermen’s Forum has been providing scholarships since 1998.
- Celebrations and festivals honoring the maritime heritage and quaint ceremonies where the fleet is blessed are iconic and done with good intentions, but would be even more appealing and effective if even a portion of the money spent on promoting, advertising and celebrating “iconic Maine” could benefit fishermen directly — preserving the working waterfront efforts in some way, if only by raising awareness of the issues commercial fishermen face.
Shelley Wigglesworth is a fisherman and journalist who lives in Kennebunkport. This column first appeared in the York County Coast-Star.