Making Connections in Maine

Guest contribution by Susanna D. Fuller

Atlantic Canada is closely connected with the US eastern seaboard.  We share a border, the Gulf of Maine, along with visitors (more so when ferries ran from Portland and Bar Harbour, Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia) and some of our best seafood has long been shipped south to the Boston Market.

Shellfish on offer, Portland, ME

Shellfish on offer, Portland, ME

Like Nova Scotia, Maine’s coastal communities largely depend on two industries – fisheries and tourism. The abundant lobster stocks are as challenging for Maine fishermen as they are in Nova Scotia in terms of ensuring a good enough price to continue to make a living.

One subtle, but important difference I notice is how local seafood is celebrated and consumed. While like Nova Scotia, Maine exports a significant amount of its wild fish, there seems to be a vibrancy at the local seafood market. One can get a haddock burger almost anywhere in the summer, in small roadside fish shacks or restaurants. Along the coast, there are hand painted signs pinned to the end of driveways advertising clams and cockles for sale. Local seafood seems more accessible – and part of that is because direct sales to consumers are allowed for a wide range of species.

Harbor Fish Market, Portland, ME

Harbor Fish Market, Portland, ME

One of my favorite pilgrimages is to the Harbor Fish Market in Portland. Portland has historically been and continues to be a fishing town – with processing plants, fishing boats and the Portland Seafood Exchange on the waterfront. The Harbour Fish Market celebrates what is locally available as well as bringing in seafood from around the US.

My sleuthing this time is to see how much fresh, peeled shrimp are selling for – $11.99 / lb for trawl caught  (the Maine quota has been cut significantly this year because of low shrimp populations). I search around for other value-added seafood and see a freezer full of kelp products, containers of smoked shrimp, and piles of steamer clams.

Local Maine Shrimp

Local Maine shrimp meats, a value added product.

What this market offers that seems lacking in Nova Scotia is the celebration of seafood, along with the seemingly joyous engagement of the staff in discussions of sourcing, pricing and policies.

Just next door to the Harbour Fish Market is J’s Oyster Bar. At 4:00 on a Thursday, it is packed to the gills. Free oysters are given out every 15 minutes. We order more oysters and a bucket of steamed clams. It is pure bliss – and I ask myself, why is it that steamed clams are not readily available in restaurants in Nova Scotia? Fried – yes, we have those. But we have a gem of a hand dug clam industry on the Eastern Shore and the Bay of Fundy. What has happened to our culture of clam bakes on the beach with buckets of dripping steamers?

Along with digging deeper into this celebratory seafood culture, I had also come to Maine to attend a few sessions at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. In it’s 38th year, the forum is described on the website:

Welcome to the Maine Fishermen’s Forum!  This is the largest event of its kind in New England – one dedicated to offering fishermen, clammers, lobstermen, aquaculturalists and other related seafood industry participants an opportunity to meet on neutral ground with fisheries managers, state representatives, Congressmen and Senators.  We offer over 30 seminars on different subjects related to the fishing industry, gear regulations etc. In addition, there are family programs, a trade show, a seafood reception highlighting Maine’s seafood, a banquet/dance on the last night, as well as a benefit auction to raise money for kids from seafood families.”

Celebrating Maine's seafood

Celebrating Maine’s seafood in Portland,  ME

The halls of the Samoset Inn outside of Rockland were buzzing with conversations between fishermen, government representatives, State of Maine staff, old friends sharing stories and children finding their way through the crowds. I scanned the crowds, seeking familiar faces and was delighted to find several colleagues working on sustainable fisheries from the Penobscot East Resource Centre, Community Fishermen’s Network , Gulf of Maine Research Institute and  the friendly smile of Trisha DeGraaf, a Dalhousie gradute who now works for the State of Maine, as well as Togue Brawn of Maine Dayboat Scallops. Sadly, I had just missed the “Who Fishes Matters” tour by the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

Scanning the seminar list, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of subject matter – everything from resolving gear conflicts, consultations on a State food policy, direct marketing advice for fishermen, a review of existing conservation measures for scallops, an update on clam populations, health checks for fishermen, ocean acidification, business planning for fishermen, factors inhibiting groundfish recovery, immersion suit training, and a NOAA listening session (NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – is the equivalent of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans). And these are just a few of the sessions offered over the three days. For my part, it was incredibly valuable to hear about other community supported fisheries, to learn about common challenges and opportunities in direct marketing, to share our recent seafood value chain report, and to connect with people and organizations working on similar issues that we face in Nova Scotia.

Fresh steamer clams with butter.

Fresh steamer clams

Of course, the grass is always greener – or the ocean more blue –  in other places. But I saw so many elements of what we do have in Atlantic Canada – all represented and working together. This is the culmination of 38 years of an annual forum that offers incredible capacity to fishermen, builds relationships between government, academia and NGOs, celebrates fishing families and shares information that is key to solving the various crises facing our oceans and coastal communities.

One of the common challenges we discussed was how seafood is not integrated into the local food system. Similar to Nova Scotia, Maine has 141 farmers markets and only 10% have any seafood available. At the same time I learned from and appreciated the value that Mainers put on seafood, and how integrated it is into their culture – from tourism, to value-added,  to working on embedding seafood into the local food movement. And I was able to make valuable connections and re-connections to people and organizations striving to maintain small-scale fishing industries.

With only a day at the forum, I gathered as much information as I could, talked to as many people as possible, attended two workshops, indulged in steamed clams and drove the 10 hours home with my mind churning. The connections left me inspired and excited about how we can learn from others and share our experiences in Atlantic Canada.  And mostly, thinking about how I can get more steamed clams.

Susanna Fuller is the Marine Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.

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