A room full of good feelings at the Fishermen’s Forum

By Chris Petersen and Madeline Motley

The Marine Policy class, team taught by Chris Petersen and Ken Cline, is spending time at the Fisherman’s Forum in Rockland, Maine this weekend. The Fisherman’s forum is the yearly meeting of the fisher folk, state and federal officials, and interested citizens. It consists of a mixture of seminars, annual meetings for fishing organizations, and even a trade show for those of you in need of new lobster traps. Around the halls were exhibits from parties such as the Maine Coastal Program, various educational programs, and awareness programs. You could also buy your fix of sea glass art, the newest boat gear, get your blood pressure checked, or read up on the scallop harvest. In Chris’s opinion, the best part was the new (free) travel mug from the Maine Coastal Program. For the marine policy students, the forum presented a fantastic opportunity to interact with fishermen, state and federal regulators, and educational groups. Held at the Samoset, it clearly is a family affair, and it was hard to pull one particular student back to the seminars that make up bulk of the daily schedule when in the next room the movie, “The Croods” was showing.

This year, after the first two days, the meeting seems a bit tame. Perhaps it’s just been a long winter, perhaps the policy makers and scientists have figured out how to present data to the public (not very likely – although there are some excellent exceptions). Perhaps everyone is satisfied with Maine fisheries policy and the industry. Perhaps we should wait for Saturday when they talk about the shrimp fishery.

On Friday, something really fun and wonderful happened. People smiled. They cried during an afternoon session with a presentation on the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. What is the program, you ask? The skippers program is one solution to make education relevant and engaging for high school students. It blends rigorous academic study with real-life experiences that make learning stick. (We think they watched video from past and especially the current COA president to come up with this). The target groups of students are aspiring commercial fishermen in local coastal high schools.

The idea is the result of collaboration from Penobscot East Resource Center and Deer Isle – Stonington High School. The program has now started in several high schools from Jonesport to Vinalhaven. The session was run by three people, from right to left on the picture, Todd West, principal of the Deer Isle – Stonington High School (Todd graduated from COA with his teaching certificate in 2000), Carla Guenther, senior scientists at Penobscot East (Carla has mentored several COA interns in Stonington, talked in multiple COA classes, and is currently a COA research associate), and Val Peacock, program director for Rural Aspirations Project (Val started college at COA in the early 90’s). To be fair, both Todd and Val also both have spent time at the University of Maine at Orono. They were great, but the high school students in the program stole the show.

Val Peacock, Carla Guenther, and Todd West at the Fisherman’s Forum.

Val Peacock, Carla Guenther, and Todd West at the Fisherman’s Forum.

Students from each of the six schools with an active program gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd that we estimated at least 150. This year, the students focused on the “Green Crab Problem.” Green crabs are an invasive species in Maine, and many fishermen and scientists are worried that if something is not done soon, they will become a huge problem. Students used their problem solving skills to come up with creative solutions as to what we should do with the green crabs. All of the groups agreed that they need to create a market for these crabs. They all had difficulty catching crabs to test their solutions, but one group has been designing their own trap design as their solution. Others plan on successfully trapping crabs in the spring and trying out their own solutions- such as fertilizers and green crab recipes. One group already has an agreement with a local golf course, which agreed to be the experimental plot for a green crab fertilizer. Recipes ranged from smoked crab, crab sushi, Rangoon, to dried powdered crab to be used as a spice.

The funniest moment: One of the students from North Haven, after going over his marketing plan for green crabs, mentioned that this wasn’t the first time he had sold green crabs, saying that when he was 10 his buddy and he had been crabbing off the pier, and sold 7 green crabs to some summer residents for $10.   This brought a huge hoot from the crowd (the key phrase is summer resident, substitute in naïve people from away).

The kids, mostly 9th and 10th graders, were both desperately ready to get off the stage and obviously proud of their work. They talked about business models, ecological research, going out to Hurricane island and learning how to census crabs (did I mention that Alice Anderson, Hurricane Island science educator and COA ‘12 has been deeply involved as well?). They talked about doing literature reviews, about building traps, and about the ice on the ocean.

Quick caveat here: the moment when Chris cried. A mother of one of the students from Stonington/Deer Isle thanked folks for the program. Through tears, she explained that last year her son was in 8th grade, uninterested in school and getting straight D’s. Her sons started the Skippers program this year and is now getting B’s, coming home excited, can’t stop talking about the cool things they are doing, how great the scientist they just saw was (Dr. Brian Beal, from UM Machias) and how much he is now enjoying school. Madeline (barely) held it together, but Chris, Carla, and many others were wiping their eyes in the room.

At the end of the presentations, after we had wiped the tears from our eyes, the room was just filled with pride. Certainly joy and pride for the students involved in the program, and in the fishermen, educators, and parents that were devoting extra hours to make this all come off.  Personally, we also had a lot of pride for our friends that were instrumental in making the program happen, Carla for the awesome job she did as MC/moderator; Todd for the willingness to help create a program that keeps kids in school, trains them in things that are relevant for them, and teaches them how to think critically and communicate, and have pride in what they accomplish; and Val, for her work on helping to bring this program to so many downeast schools. As Todd said at the end, these students are the people that will be staying in the community, and are the future taxpayers of your town. After Todd had talked about how they would ultimately like to see the program linked more closely to universities, and mentioned UM Machias, UM Orono, and the Maine Maritime Academy, it was Dennis Damon who spoke up and suggested that they think about including schools like COA in that equation, at which point Carla gave Chris a shout out. (We don’t believe for a minute that Dennis’ shout out had anything to do with the fact that he was sitting next to graduate student and COA trustee Cody van Heerden). Luckily we are already a partner on the project.

This is just good work. MDI High School is gearing up to join the program next year, and we hope that COA can play a larger role in helping them and the other high schools make this program a success. Ted Hoskins commented that it was the best session he had been to at the Fishermen’s Forum in years.

The majority of the COA Marine Policy class will be at the Fisherman’s Forum on Saturday, learning about elvers, alewives, shrimp, and scallops. Mostly, we will be learning about people. Today it was about people, and today was a day to be very proud for the role that all of the friends and alums of COA had played in getting this program off the ground. Congratulations to the staff of Deer-Isle Stonington and the other high schools, and to Penobscot East for getting this rolling!

You can find out more about the skippers program at:


About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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1 Response to A room full of good feelings at the Fishermen’s Forum

  1. Pingback: Where did May go: Part 2 – Counting clams – what abundance looks like | Marine Studies at COA

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