Needs assessment identifies key ways to support fishing community in Harpswell

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A needs assessment was recently done in Harpswell to learn what issues face the local fishing community.

When you think about the coast of Maine, who doesn’t picture fishing boats busily going in and out of harbors, traps stacked along wharves, and moorings bobbing on the surface of the water? It is part of the character of the coast and important to our history, as well as our economy.

Part of the strength of this character is the strength of its individual characters, much as I wrote about in my last column about capturing community stories in the Voices of Conservation project. There is a pride in the level of independence that the fishing industry affords its participants. But, it often makes it challenging to identify what the collective needs of this community might be. It isn’t simple to gauge the concerns of fishermen who are busy out on the water and to figure out how to address some of these concerns.

To help get at what these issues might be, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association has been conducting a needs assessment of the Harpswell fishing community. The project is funded by the Holbrook Community Foundation whose mission, in part, is to support commercial fishing in Harpswell.

The goal is to identify concerns among the community and provide this information to town organizations and boards, along with the state, to develop or improve research programs and projects that could strengthen the Harp-swell fishing community. As MCFA Executive Director Ben Martens puts it, “The insights that this process will illuminate will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the true needs.”

MCFA recently completed Phase 1 of its assessment, which included a total of 21 interviews and nine community meetings focused on shellfish harvesters, ground fishermen and town support personnel. An interim report of these findings was recently presented at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust office at the end of March and will also be presented to the town administrator.

One of the more overarching findings was the importance of the fishing to the overall community of Harpswell and the need to maintain and hopefully strengthen its role. Specific concerns included waterfront access — for ground fishermen who need access to wharves and moorings, both of which are in short supply due to private property ownership and the expense of maintaining publicly accessible infrastructure; and for shellfish harvesters who need coastal access points.

Management was another challenge — ground fish are managed federally and shellfish are managed municipally. So, town managers are understandably more focused on shellfish harvesting and regulation, and somewhat disconnected from what is happening with ground fishermen.

Education was identified as a priority, as well — more community education about the value of fisheries both to the public and also within schools. This could help raise the awareness of the value of fisheries to coastal citizens, as well as to spark the interest of students in pursuing fisheries-related careers.

This is all great information, but now those involved have to figure out what to do with it. Fortunately, part of the interviews involved exploring solutions, as well as problems. To strengthen and celebrate the town’s fishing heritage, one idea was to look to other communities. Towns like Port Clyde, Boothbay and Stoning-ton have all worked to increase community awareness and involvement in their fisheries for the towns themselves and also for tourists drawn to visit them.

To improve management issues, the town could have a dedicated marine resource management position. This would help improve communication and clarity between the town and fishermen. And to tackle access issues, one discrete idea is to have a land-owner appreciation day to celebrate the connection between land-owners and shellfish harvesters.

These are great ideas, but this is just the beginning. A second phase of the project starting in April and continuing into July will include aquaculture, bait dealers, and lobstermen. There are more complex issues to be uncovered to be sure. A final report will be presented in December that will include public discussion, at which point all findings will be made available to local organizations, the Town of Harpswell, and the state.

As often is the case, much can be accomplished by aligning the needs of a community with what resources are out there to address them. From there, we can collectively come up with positive solutions that strengthen our coastal character and preserve its heritage.

If anyone has questions or would like to be interviewed for this project, they can contact Kendra Jo Grindle at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, at kendrajo@mainecoastfishermen.org or 619-1129.

Susan Olcott is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She can reached at: susan.olcott@gmail.com

If anyone has questions or would like to be interviewed for this project, they can contact Kendra Jo Grindle at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association at 619-1129.