Boe Marsh, head of Community Shellfish in Bremen, sees the value that the working waterfront brings to his small coastal town on a daily basis. As working waterfront access diminishes along Maine’s coast, he and others are desperate to protect it.

A new report commissioned by the Island Institute in Rockland is raising the alarm and proposing solutions. 

According to the report, the lack of infrastructure, support, access, affordable housing and legal protections, as well as increasing risks from climate change, make Maine particularly vulnerable to losing its iconic working waterfronts.

It details the need for a broad, statewide strategy around protecting access before it’s too late.

The report, authored by fisheries consultant Merritt Carey, describes the need to protect existing access to working waterfronts as both urgent and critical – because once waterfront access points are lost, they generally don’t return.

“While we need to understand more comprehensively the overall economic impact of our seafood industry, we cannot wait for that data to act,” the report says. “Maine needs a statewide action plan to protect its working waterfront and access before it’s so diminished as to be irrelevant.”

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ACCESS AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Maine’s “Blue Economy” is a vital economic engine for the state. Last year, the seafood industry netted $516.7 million in landings alone and contributed over $1 billion to the state’s economy. 

The state has invested a great deal of money into further developing that blue economy, but according to the report, investment in protecting waterfront access to ensure that growth has not kept pace.

The loss of that access, it said, can set off a cascade of challenges.

For example, many commercial fishermen don’t have access to a working wharf. Instead, they unload their gear at municipal facilities shared by recreational users, often without the infrastructure fishermen need, such as loading docks, bait and gear storage, cold storage, commercial hoists, forklifts, and room to load and maneuver trucks. This means more time and effort managing gear for fishermen, and an increase in competing uses that municipalities must manage.

Just a few years ago, Portland Pier was dilapidated and unsafe for lobstermen to use, said Ben Conniff, co-founder and chief innovation officer at seafood seller Luke’s Lobster.

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Ben Conniff, co-founder of Luke’s Lobster, at the Portland Pier last week. Conniff said working waterfronts are often too expensive to maintain and are ultimately sold to developers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It’s an all too common reality for a lot of working waterfronts, he said, as they’re often too expensive to maintain and are ultimately sold to developers, at which point the working waterfront is lost.

“If that continues, that’s going to be a huge problem for the state of Maine and the fishing industry,” he said. “We rely so heavily on this natural resource, but we often don’t appreciate how much infrastructure is needed (to preserve it).”

In 2018, Luke’s Lobster announced plans to open a restaurant at 60 Portland Pier. With revenue from the restaurant, the company has been able to support and manage the pier.

In Bremen, Marsh also has been trying to keep the working waterfront alive. Community Shellfish performs many functions: lobster, clam and oyster dealer; oyster aquaculture operation; processing and distribution center; storage facility; harbor and dock that supports more than 50 lobstermen and over 40 clam diggers. It’s home to over 13 acres of protected working waterfront.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is purchasing Union Wharf in Portland and will maintain access for fishermen, oil spill responders, lobster wholesalers and other maritime businesses, the parties involved announced last month. Portland’s Custom House Wharf also has a new buyer under contract, who has yet to be identified, after more than 200 years of family ownership.

AFFORDABILITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE 

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Contributing to this lack of access, and further complicating the viability of a working waterfront, is the lack of affordable housing in coastal communities, according to the report.

Maine’s housing market is red hot, with rising prices but declining sales, meaning there’s not much inventory. Homes are selling quickly once they hit the market, and according to the Island Institute report, they’re increasingly selling to out-of-state residents. 

In 2020, 30 percent of all homes sold in Maine were purchased by out-of-staters, up from the usual 25 percent, and the median home price jumped from $225,000 in 2019 to $256,000, according to the report. In October, nearly 40 percent of home sales were to out-of-state buyers, and the median sales price was $308,000.

Such high prices can prohibit commercial fishermen from buying homes in working waterfront communities, which at the very least means costly gear transportation and in some cases prohibits them from harvesting there at all. According to the report, many municipalities have a residency requirement for clamming licenses, meaning clammers have to live in the city or town in order to access the flats. 

Steve Train and Eric Grove perform maintenance on the lobster boat Wild Irish Rose while tied to a dock at Portland Pier on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This boost in out-of-state home sales is not in and of itself a bad thing, the report says, “(but) these statistics underscore a long-existing trend of coastal real estate becoming too expensive for local residents to afford, and an influx of people coming to the state who may not understand or appreciate the importance of our marine industries.”

Climate change presents another impending, if uncertain, set of difficulties. 

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“On a practical level, climate change means coastal maintenance and existing infrastructure will be more expensive to maintain,” the report says. 

Other potential climate change issues are less clear, it says, such as which species will exist in the Gulf of Maine 30 years from now, whether the state will allow those species to be fished, and whether the infrastructure and markets to handle them will be there. 

Conniff and Marsh both fear what climate change could mean for Maine fisheries, pointing to the collapse of Maine’s shrimp fishery in 2013. Scientists now believe climate change played a major role and are pointing to a species of shrimp-eating squid that came into the Gulf of Maine during a historic ocean heat wave the year before.

Seabass, which enjoy feeding on juvenile lobsters or lobster larvae, have historically not been found this far north but may be moving up as the Gulf of Maine warms, Conniff said. In addition, he said, rising sea levels and increasingly vicious storms create an uncertain future for much of Maine’s shoreside infrastructure.

A CALL TO ACTION

Maine isn’t entirely without waterfront protections. There are a number of programs in place, the most significant of which is the Working Waterfront Access Protection Program, a branch of the Land for Maine’s Future. 

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The program is funded through bond measures, according to the report, which means the program essentially buys development rights from the wharf owners and places a restrictive easement on the property to ensure it will remain a working waterfront.

Roughly $6 million has been spent on the 27 properties the program has protected since its inception in 2006. Earlier this year, an additional $4 million was approved to be spent over the next four years. 

Still, $4 million is one-tenth of the $40 million reserved for the Land for Maine’s Future program. 

What is most striking in the analysis of Maine’s working waterfront is how little is in place for protection of working waterfront and access when considered against the economic impact our working waterfront delivers (not to mention culture, heritage, community),” the report says.  

Custom House Wharf in Portland last week. Custom House Wharf  has a new buyer under contract, who has yet to be identified, after more than 200 years of family ownership. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Protecting Maine’s waterfront largely falls to wharf owners and a handful of organizations such as the Island Institute, Coastal Enterprises Inc., Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, as well as individual municipalities. 

But there’s more that can be done, the report says.

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It calls for a statewide foundation, or additional funding for an existing organization, to assess the needs, buy and protect the real estate, and actively seek to protect Maine’s working waterfront. The board should be composed of fishermen, real estate agents, representatives from the Maine Department of Marine Resources and others, it says. 

The state also needs a comprehensive plan to protect the waterfront and access to it, the report states. 

The plan should include a study of the impact of the seafood industry now and in the future, it says. That would include planning for climate change, a needs assessment for coastal communities most at risk for losing access, an assessment of which properties and areas are most valuable to fishing communities, and an analysis of the cascade effect of access decline and how it can create new problems. 

The report also recommends a statewide marketing plan for educating new home buyers, tourists and residents about working waterfronts to help mitigate some of the more preventable access challenges.


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