PORTLAND — Want to draw a crowd in Portland? Suggest changing the zoning rules for the city’s waterfront.

More than 80 people showed up Tuesday at the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall for a city forum on the waterfront.

The high turnout and diversity of opinions show there continues to be a high level public interest in the issue.

Eleven pier owners have proposed relaxing the rules to allow more non-marine development.

As city officials begin considering zoning changes, it’s important that the public becomes engaged, said City Councilor Dory Waxman, who attended the forum.

“Bringing people into the conversation is the most important thing we can do right now,” she said.

There will be a second forum tonight at 7 p.m. at the same location.

Next Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, the Planning Board will hold a workshop to review proposed policy and zoning-text changes for the waterfront.

The board is focused on the area between the Maine State Pier and the International Marine Terminal.

The pier owners have worked with city planning staff on a proposal to allow more non-marine development on the piers.

The potential for development is huge — about 50 acres would be affected, about half the size of the city’s Bayside neighborhood.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on the dramatic decline of the groundfishing industry and whether it can ever come back once fish stocks rebound.

Burt Jongerden, General Manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said Portland was once the largest groundfish port in the Northeast.

In the early 1990s, 350 vessels landed fish in Portland. Today, there are only 65 active vessels.

Landings have plummeted from nearly 30 million pounds in the early 1990s to a low of 6.4 million pounds last year.

Jongerden said offshore vessels now are landing fish in Massachusetts, enjoying economic advantages that include being allowed to sell lobsters caught in their nets, a practice banned in Maine.

He said new federal fishing restrictions going into effect this year will lead to a further fleet reduction, possibly by as much as half.

Once fish stocks fully recover, however, fishermen will be allowed to catch about twice as much as they can now, Jongerden said.

Nicholas Walsh, a maritime attorney, said he worries that allowing more non-marine development could create a permanent obstacle to the fishing industry’s recovery.

“Are we like the people who sell at the bottom of the market?” he asked.

Charlie Poole, whose family owns Union Wharf, said pier owners need more non-marine tenants so they earn enough money to pay for pier upkeep.

He said city officials need to make a realistic assessment of the waterfront’s economic potential.

“You can’t reserve the rest of the waterfront for a fishing industry that may or may not rebound,” he said.

The “authenticity” of the working waterfront and access to freshly harvested fish are important tourist draws, said Barbara Whitten, executive director of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitor Bureau.

At the same time, she said, the piers need new investment because many of the buildings on them are unsightly, boarded-up warehouses.

Mark Dawson, an urban designer, said he is anxious to see how city officials wrestle with the complex issues.

“We have to find a balance,” he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at [email protected]