For centuries, many Mainers have made their living on the sea. But lately that’s becoming harder to do because of what’s happening on shore.

Aging piers and deteriorating infrastructure are making it harder for fishermen and others to get to the water. Meanwhile, climate change is making the assets that still exist more expensive to maintain.

Along with development pressure, rising home prices and expanding tourism a picture emerges of the forces that are crowding out water-dependent businesses and the people they employ from the places they need to be.

These and other challenges were the subject of a new report, “The Critical Nature of Maine’s Working Waterfronts and Access to the Shore,” released by the Island Institute. The study, conducted by Merritt T. Carey, a fisheries consultant who lives in Yarmouth, highlights the threats to working waterfronts and proposes policy changes that would protect these invaluable resources.

“Simply put, Maine is not Maine without a gritty working waterfront,” Carey writes. “Do we want to be a coastline of picture perfect million-dollar homes, or a coastline of activity, vibrance and character? The choice is ours, and the time is now.”

The report should be a useful tool for legislators and policymakers who want to make sure that there is a future for these traditional industries.


The report does a good job of explaining what’s at stake. The state of the working waterfront is not all bad news.

Maine’s lobster industry leads the way, valued at $1 billion a year, according to a 2018 Colby College study.

It is followed by Maine’s wild-caught and farmed fish landings, which are estimated to bring in another $500 million a year. And that does not capture the money spent by tourists, who are attracted to coastal towns where they can eat lobsters and clams while watching the people and their boats.

Groundfishing has been stuck in a long decline, but landings of other species, such as scallops, are increasing, as are applications for aquaculture leases to grow shellfish, salmon and seaweed.

But despite the value of the working waterfront, little is in place to protect it.

Unlike the land preservation movement, which has leveraged tax breaks, public money and philanthropic contributions to maintain public enjoyment of unique places, waterfronts are mostly owned privately and subject to commercial pressures the owners can’t control.


Eighty-four land trusts in the state preserve land for recreational use, but, according to the study, not one entity in Maine is devoted solely to the preservation of the working waterfront.

The Island Institute report proposes a number of ways the public and private sectors could work together to shore up the working waterfront’s future.

It identifies the need for a statewide foundation that could identify and buy crucial properties that would preserve working-waterfront infrastructure.

Other proposals include a comprehensive statewide plan based on a thorough study of the real value of the seafood industry and an assessment of its needs.

It also calls for an education program for new homebuyers, tourists and residents in general about the fragile nature of the working waterfront and the contribution that it makes.

Creating these supporting institutions and programs will not be easy or inexpensive. Perhaps most important will be a public awakening to the fact that this sturdy-looking industrial landscape is actually quite fragile and could easily be lost.

The Island Institute has given the state a good framework for the conversations that should be happening when the Legislature reconvenes next month, and in the upcoming campaign season.

The working waterfront has been an important part of Maine’s past, but we can’t assume that it will be part of our future if we don’t act now.

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