Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish. This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA – Chris Petersen
by Leah Rubin
A seal scapula lay on the sand below the dock. Next to our group was a school bus-sized freezer and the wind carried the fresh bait smell right to my nostrils. Lazily swatting small black flies from my face, I listened to Dave Thomas, a local lobsterman and a member of Little Cranberry Lobster, the island’s lobster Co-op, while taking in the surroundings. From the boat, the town of Islesford, on Little Cranberry Island, had looked much like Mount Desert Island. But now, on the pier, I could see that few buildings sat further inland, there were lobster traps stacked across an entire field and no trash was scattered along the beach. Dave walked us under an aluminum roof, and overhead the herring gulls screeched. In the room underneath were barrels of bait: redfish racks, skate, and herring.
Dave talked to us about the island’s lobster co-op. Laughing, he allowed that it is a “fine communist plot that works for us.” He mentioned a number of common themes: concern about climate change which has pushed many lobsters further offshore, the importance of a community-supported fishery, and a lack of diverse fisheries. However, I wasn’t expecting him to stress the importance of understanding economics and business. In my mind, lobstering seems almost romantic. The archetype of a Maine lobsterman, accent and all, is clear in my mind and the skills which occur to me are an ability to do hard physical labor for long hours and having a fierce understanding of the ocean. I do not usually associate lobstermen, or anyone outside of an office job, with an acute sense of the market system, an obvious failure on my part to understand the complexity and difficulty of lobstering. Dave walked our group through the 2008 financial crisis, detailing where the lobsters caught in Maine go once brought to shore, from Canada to be processed and then as far as China to be eaten. Dave lamented that you “gotta be big to survive” in today’s global fishing market. Handing us Little Cranberry Lobster pamphlets, he told us the Co-op’s aim is to “brand” their lobsters, thereby achieving a reliable and profitable system.
Arriving in Northeast Harbor an hour earlier, the Fishermen, Fisheries, and Fishing Communities class had clambered out of the vans and loaded ourselves onto the Osprey. We met Nick Battista and Rebecca Clark Uchenna from the Island Institute, who introduced themselves and outlined the work they do. The Island Institute aims to help sustain Maine islands through economic development, education, and marine resources. The Island Institute and COA have a unique connection, one that allows COA to teach classes such as sustainable energy on Samso Island off of Denmark’s coast. They understand the things an island community needs to sustain its population and told us about the island’s general store, school, library, and post office.
Clockwise from top left. Dave, Nick, Rebecca and student Teagan White look at maps, traps on the green, students in the coop. Photos above by Natalie Springuel.
While wandering around the island with three friends, we ran into a sweet couple who had retired to the island years ago. While they may be from “away,” they have made Islesford their home. The man has checked out every James Patterson novel from the library and the woman has learned how to get the ingredients she needs when she wants to try new recipes. Watercress soup was on the menu that night, ingredients sent on the ferry by their daughter on Mount Desert Island. We had noticed that there weren’t many people walking around, and asked if that was normal for a Friday at 2:45. The couple bemoaned the closing of the general shop; the owner is ill. There were concerns about mail service changing, the restaurant owner retiring and cycling of the school between Little and Great Cranberry. We were surprised to hear about so much potential change, we thought of this as a small, isolated island where things always stayed the same, and what we saw were dynamic changes, including some institutions that seemed critical for the island’s sense of community. It seemed like most of the factors which we had been taught uphold an island community were vulnerable. We thanked the couple for the information, and as we turned to go they invited us to come visit in the summer. I look forward to coming back to visit, and see how these issues have been resolved.
Before heading back home, Roz Rea, the project coordinator for the Isleford Historical Museum “Boats and Bouys” exhibit gave us a tour. There were numerous portraits of the island’s fishermen with their families, boats and gear. Historical aspects included an old sea chantey, descriptions of closed fisheries and timeworn photographs of the community. This museum expertly connected the modern island we had just explored to the Little Cranberry of the past.
When I returned to the boat I asked Nick what he thought about the closing businesses. He confidently said that others would move in and make up the gap by starting new businesses and picking up old ones. I assumed that the Island Institute would immediately rush in and perhaps start up their own store or restaurant to help jumpstart the economy. However, while the Island Institute makes available resources and education for those who hope to start or fix businesses Nick said, in layman’s terms, that it wasn’t the organization’s role and that islands don’t want or need organizations to become that intrusive, and I think I now understand why. Even if they could airdrop a new store owner or bring the mail to the island themselves, the Island Institute wouldn’t because that is not sustainable; it is Islesford who must work together to create methods which work for their own community, as they have been for as long as their community has been around.
This field trip has encouraged me to look into becoming an Island fellow through the Island Institute. The program places college graduates on islands to work on community-identified programs. This would be an amazing opportunity for myself to learn more from Maine’s unique and culturally rich island communities.
Editors note: Since our May 6 trip to Islesford, the Washington Post has published a nice article on Little Cranberry Lobster and their work on finding high-end markets, as far away as China.