As the former owner of a commercial fishing vessel for more than 30 years, as the former executive director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (, and as a former board member of the Portland Fish Exchange, I noted a Sept. 14 story in the Press Herald about waterfront development in Portland, and the marine businesses concerned by it. What jumped out at me was a quote from a petition submitted to the Portland Planning Board by a group of fishermen:

“The very lifeblood of Portland will cease to flow if these developments are allowed to continue. No new offices, condominiums or hotels must ever be allowed on the wharf side of Commercial Street if the maritime trade is going to continue to exist.”

Sorry, I’m not buying into that rigid hyperbole, and Portland should not put itself into such a straitjacket.

I and hundreds of other small Maine businesses – and that’s what those who depend on the fisheries are – owe a large debt of gratitude to everyone who has worked so hard, and for so long, to fight for the legitimacy of traditional waterfront pursuits during the last 30 years.

Karen Sanford, who founded Keep The Port In Portland, wrote an excellent Maine Voices piece for the Press Herald in May that discussed the “mixed grades” she gives to Portland’s efforts to preserve the working waterfront. She wrote, “And, as the voters in 1987 knew, ‘keeping the Port in Portland’ is what makes this nearly 400-year-old deep-water seaport city a distinctive, exciting place to live and to visit. Shouldn’t we think this over before we price it out and crowd it out completely?”

I completely agree, but I would add the nuance that we must take all facts into account.

Unfortunately, conditions have changed drastically in the fishing industry. What was true in 1987 is not necessarily true in 2017. For one, the commercial fishing fleet along the entire Eastern Seaboard has been completely decimated. Thanks to severe federal and state restrictions, climate change and short-sighted decisions to reward those who caught the most fish, commercial fishing has gone corporate. The little guys like me have been driven out – forever. Naturally, that means the needs for dock space and supplies have decreased significantly, and permanently. Even in our most prominent fishery, the lobster fishery, the number of participants within a defined geographic region is strictly regulated.

Given those facts, there has to be room for intelligent modification of zoning laws and intelligent development. Let me be clear, Portland must protect an appropriate amount of access to the waterfront for commercial fishing businesses. Also, non-fishing businesses in the same neighborhood must understand that working in a commercial fishing zone brings with it the ripe aroma of fish and bait, an early morning symphony of diesel engines, and more. It is a way of life we Mainers must support, and have always supported.

But we must be realistic, and accept that our economy is diversifying, and that close proximity to the waterfront can yield new opportunities.

When I was the executive director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, an advocacy organization for groundfishermen throughout the northeastern U.S., I received a lot of training in conflict resolution. That’s why I support Karen Sanford’s reasoned call to “think this over” when it comes to tackling the complex issues involved with waterfront development.

If a particular proposal represents real and imminent danger to marine uses – as demonstrated by hard data – then we need to rely upon protections that the people of Portland put in place 30 years ago. But if a particular proposal does not displace fisherman or hurt marine use, then I would suggest that sticking to hard and absolute positions hurts the possibility of achieving the thoughtful compromises that Karen Sanford suggests are possible.

In my present role as executive director of a Chamber of Commerce in York County, I think it’s important not only to mention all the facts, but also to face them. As Portland wrestles with the tension between traditional waterfront uses and new economic development proposals, it would be unwise to ignore the hand that the fishing industry has been dealt. Our government, with our consent, has fundamentally and permanently changed the composition of the fishing industry.

So let’s innovate. My hope is that Maine ports like the city of Portland, given this new reality, can find the wisdom to achieve a sensible and workable balance.

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