Working waterfront in Maine

Editor’s note: I grew up in Los Angeles, where the huge ports of San Pedro and Long Beach monopolized a section of the bay, the oil refineries shared the landscape, and the large cranes that removed containers reminded us of imperial walkers.  Yet a mile away there were houses, restaurants, and condos facing the ocean.  These two places didn’t mix, they were like oil and water, and the boundaries were clear. In Maine, in most towns the working waterfront is interdigitated among restaurants and houses, private and public piers sit next to each other, and access to the water seems to be as fragile as a for-sale sign. This post includes the work of two students from the spring of 2019. The first is a video by graduate student Giulia Cardoso ’20 for a documentary video class, and has interviews from fishermen in Steuben, Northeast Harbor, and Boothbay Harbor. The text and pictures that follow is from Kiernan Crough ’22, from an assignment in Natalie Springuel and my Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class in the spring of 2019.  Both Kiernan and Giulia went to many of the ports together, so it seemed like a good idea to link the two projects together. At the end of the post, there are some links to resources for anyone that wants to find out more about working waterfront challenges in Maine. – Chris Petersen

Where It All Starts:  College of the Atlantic graduate student Giulia Cardoso interviews multiple stakeholders of Maine’s working waterfront and discusses the challenges for keeping public access to Maine’s coastline.


Coastal communities and working waterfronts of Maine. By Kiernan Crough

Following an oversized black pickup down a wooded backroad in Steuben, Maine, the road wound its way to spit us out into a clearing of sleepy houses nestled on the bay’s coast. The large stacks of lobster traps sitting in each well-kept lawn quickly informed us that we were in the right place. Stepping out of the car and walking down to the 80-foot wooden wharf, Giulia and I shake hands with Mike Sargent, a multi-generational fishermen and current board member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Surrounding the wharf are fuel and bait houses, a lobster pound, and a large float covered in skiffs which juts out into the glassy bay: pretty much everything a lobsterman could ask for. It’s an overcast but beautiful day as we launch the skiff off the floating dock and motor over to Mike’s boat, the 42-foot Tina Marie Ⅱ, who idly drifts in the sheltered bay. After one return trip to retrieve a forgotten camera battery, we settle on deck and into a long conversation on the future of Maine’s working waterfronts. Giulia and I are students at the College of the Atlantic with a shared interest in Maine fisheries and fishing communities. She set up this meeting with Mike as a part of her documentary class to interview and shoot footage of the newest generation of fishermen and I tagged along to help with audio and witness the reality of those fishing communities I had previously only read about in class.


Michael Sargent standing aboard the F/V Tina Marie

Mike works out of Francis Lobster Company, a multigenerational facility that was started back in the 1930s and has since been maintained by the families that grew up and built their livelihoods along that stretch of coast. There’s a strong sense of community surrounding the wharf: whenever something needs to be done – such as the yearly maintenance needed after the icy and stormy Maine winters – those who revolve around Francis Lobster Company come together to pool their efforts. Small communities such as these are aware that there isn’t an entity taking care of them – that for the most part, they have to look out for themselves and for each other. But as development makes its way down the coast of Maine, Mike hopes that the heritage of the working waterfront stays alive. He adds that, “[t]he fear is that as fishing becomes more threatened [there’s the] idea we could be the last generation to have that access, then the death of all these communities is right behind it cause there’s nothing else to support it.” Waterfront access is crucial for those who make their living off the water, but for many Maine coastal communities it represents more than a simple economic opportunity. Wharves and piers are the physical embodiment of centuries-long heritage and legacy that define the character of these communities. Loss of access would mean loss of income, but most importantly loss of identity. Mike is optimistic about the future of fishing in Maine; he believes fishermen will always find a way to fish thanks to their resilience and ingenuity. His biggest concern is that outside influence such as gentrification and development may lead to loss of waterfront access – a threat against which resilience and ingenuity may not be enough. He advocates for collaboration as the key to strike a balance between property development and working waterfront preservation, so that both can co-exist on the coast of Maine.


The view of the waterfront in Steuben where Mike works from

As a family-run wharf, Francis Lobster Company is a privately owned facility, like the majority of working waterfronts in Maine. The risk with private wharves is that the families who own them may struggle with maintenance costs and property taxes, and eventually resort to selling the property to avoid financial difficulties. Once the property is sold, it is likely to be converted to non-water dependent uses, such as private residences or tourism services and never be accessible again to fishermen. While Mike’s wharf is not currently threatened by this, other waterfronts in the southern part of the State have had to deal with precisely this issue. In this sense, Boothbay Harbor has recently been in the spotlight as the town came to vote on the fate of its Maritime District. On May 3rd, 2019, voters ultimately decided to split the district into two zones, one dedicated to maritime uses and the other to limited commercial uses. The commercial zoning will allow for the development of motels, hotels, inns, microbreweries, and marinas. In addition, the maximum building height will increase from 30 to 35 feet; this will allow businesses to gain access to the scenic views of the harbor, while maintaining ground-level spaces accessible to fishermen.


Boothbay Harbor

Motivated by this partial victory in favor of working waterfronts, Giulia and I travelled to the Midcoast town to learn more. Boothbay Harbor has a long history as a tourist destination and as Giulia and I drove through the brightly colored streets and the bustle of springtime renovations, it felt as if the town was slowly waking up to brush its teeth, comb its hair and prepare for the seasonal visitors. Compared to Steuben, which felt altogether lived in and distinctly adapted to the wharf and fishing lifestyle, Boothbay Harbor felt as if it was being put together to sell the experience of a sleepy fishing town while truly accommodating visitors’ demands. Dock space is reserved for recreational yachts in the summer, meaning fishermen have to leave their boats on moorings; and while tourists come to see the fishermen and the working waterfront, they also want to stay in waterfront hotels and eat in restaurants overlooking the harbor.


Carter’s wharf, the sea pier in Boothbay Harbor, which was donated to the Boothbay Region Maritime Foundation

Troy Plummer, a young lobsterman who grew up in Boothbay Harbor, is very aware that the tourists’ desire to observe fishermen clashes with the reality of the work: the pungent smell of bait, the loud diesel engines being started before dawn, and all the noises and sights that necessarily come with being close to the waterfront. Facing forward with one hand on the wheel, he circles his boat, the F/V Odyssey, around the edge of the harbor and puts us in the perspective of the fishermen of Boothbay Harbor, both literally and figuratively. He explains to us that “[v]acation homes, hotels, restaurants– they have more economic power than we do as a fishing industry for a myriad of reasons and we’re competing for the same real estate. And there’s only so much here.”. While the community does support the working waterfront – with one donor even gifting the town fishermen a pier that was at risk of being purchased and converted to a luxury property – they also understand that their own survival and growth improve with the economic opportunities that tourism provides. Troy, however, emphasizes how tourism’s contribution is only seasonal, while the fishing industry keeps the community alive year-round. His worry is that blinded by mere economic gain, the town will eventually forget its fishing roots and dedicate itself entirely to tourists. This could have life-changing consequences for those Boothbay Harbor families that have been fishing for generations, from loss of income to significant changes in habits and traditions. Among other concerns, Troy shares his worry that as development and urbanization spread, tolerance for commercial activities that are traditionally accepted in residential areas in Maine (such as stacking lobster traps in yards) could be reduced and ultimately banned, something that has already occurred in other coastal states. It’s not all gloom and doom, though, and just like Mike suggested, hope and creative solutions come from mediating between the contrasting needs of fishing and tourism: Troy points out that, “[a] couple of the places here are already restaurants and lobster docks. The restaurant’s there to keep the property acting as a lobster dock.”. By increasing their revenue through the restaurant business, the dock owners can continue to run the facility and serve the fishermen. It’s a compromise, but it ensures that no activity displaces the other.


Troy Plummer standing next to the F/V Odyssey in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Despite the struggles and issues they face, the fishermen we met were proud of their heritage and confident that fishing in their communities will remain and evolve as it has done since humans first learned to harvest food from the rivers and oceans. While their tenacity and ingenuity are certainly a huge asset in keeping their lifestyle alive, they may not be enough to take on the growing outside pressures that threaten it. The communities who stand behind fishermen, and the State of Maine itself, should recognize and embrace their significance and support them in their upcoming struggles.

Additional Resources:

Maine Sea Grant has an excellent website with links to several Maine and National publications on working waterfront.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) as part of the Maine Coastal Program also has an excellent website with links to a large number of documents on working waterfront in Maine.

Edited by Chris Petersen and Aliza Leit ’21

About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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