Maine’s youngest fishermen: Hooked on tradition, challenged to innovate

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 4

HARPSWELL — Josh Todd’s memories of growing up aboard his father’s fishing boat are of deck hands shoveling shrimp and being allowed to place rubber bands on lobsters as they came out of the ocean.

When he was old enough, the Chebeague Island native was allowed five lobster traps of his own. Now a rising junior at Freeport High School, Todd – whose hulking frame belies the fact that he will turn 16 this month – wakes at 5:30 a.m. several days a week to haul 150 traps.

Watching, learning, and paying attention: that’s how Todd became the fisherman he is today, he said earlier this month, seated in a booth at Freeport’s Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co.

“You have five traps when you’re young, and the money seems good,” he joked, noting how the money he now makes with his commercial student license is enough to buy bait, diesel fuel, and gradually pay back his dad for the 30-foot boat on which he fishes.

“But it’s also something to keep the family tradition alive,” he said.

Fishing is kept alive, according to Todd and others in the next generation of Casco Bay fishermen, through the knowledge, resources and traditions passed down in coastal Maine communities.

“You really have to learn a lot on your own, too,” agreed 16-year-old Kaileb Hawkes, whose grandmother operates Hawkes Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor. “But I guess a lot of the people around here are from families that have done it for years.”

Hawkes said he feels “pretty supported” in his goal to become a commercial lobsterman.

But to keep the dream alive, it’s increasingly apparent, the next generation of fishermen will have to adapt and embrace change.

While Todd may be following in the footsteps of his forebears, his path is beset with new obstacles in a regulatory environment that has become increasingly complex. It has also forced him to skew heavily in favor of lobster over other fisheries.

His generation is shrinking, too: the average age of the commercial fisherman continues to rise, according to a proposed federal bill. Hawkes, for example, said fewer kids his age are getting into fishing, and he even earned the nickname “Lobster” on the Mount Ararat High School baseball team because of his unique status among his peers.

Earlier this year, Todd and his father, Alex, traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak in favor of that bill, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which would create funding to allow states to establish regionally specific programs to help young fishermen enter and remain in the industry.

Co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, the bill is “trying to maintain that type of historical knowledge and understanding,” as an answer to the question of “how do we keep fishing communities fishing,” according to Monique Coombs of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“In an industry that’s often portrayed as dying,” she said, “we also need young people that are interested in innovating.”

What’s more, without a family member “or an organization standing beside you,” MCFA Director Ben Martens added, “it can be really daunting in New England, especially for a young person that’s buying a boat, or thinking about diversifying (their fishing permits)” to enter and survive in the industry.

With the bill and efforts to strengthen educational programs in the state, Martens said, the industry is hoping it can start to build the next generation of fishermen, empowered to face what lies ahead, who see this as a business issue, as well as a cultural one.

The lobster ‘gap’

Lobstering is the hallmark of Maine’s fishing industry. These days especially, it is both iconic and profitable.

The Department of Marine Resources reported earlier this spring that last year, Maine fishermen hauled a record 130 million pounds of lobster; overall, the industry saw its landed value reach a high of more than $547 million.

Yet fisheries – a natural resource, Hawkes noted – ebb and flow.

Just months after the DMR announced last year’s record sales, the American Lobster Settlement Index, an international monitoring program founded by a University of Maine marine scientist, reported the number of baby lobsters are gradually falling in the Gulf of Maine.

But that information doesn’t discourage Hawkes, who this week turns 17, making him eligible for a full commercial lobstering license that allows him to bring his total number of traps to 300.

“Obviously we’re going to have ups and downs,” he said, citing the state’s conservation practices for trapping lobster. “Not every year’s going to be amazing.”

But these days, the profitability of lobstering, combined with increased complexity in the regulation of, or closure of, other fisheries such as shrimp, has meant few young fishermen are gaining exposure to much besides hauling traps.

“There’s this gap,” Coombs explained over the phone Monday. “Even the people who do multiple fisheries are relying on lobsters because it’s going well right now.”

“We used to have very diverse fishing industries, (but) all of those other categories pale in comparison to lobster,” Ben Martens said.

Sitting at his desk in Brunswick’s Fort Andross, he called attention to the growing disparity between lobstering and groundfishing permit holders in the state, which last year he estimated was on the scale of about 5,000 to 50.

Todd agreed, and noted the disproportion wasn’t true for previous generations. “Now you look around, and you see 90 percent lobster boats,” he said. “I guess (then) it was easier to get the permits, and easier to get the knowledge.

“So if you’re just thinking about fishing families,” he continued, “what number of young people coming up in the industry are being exposed to groundfish?”

Luckily for Todd, he was.

Time, resources, ‘little secrets’

“(My dad) is my main resource for learning how to fish,” he said, referring not only to the overhead costs his dad provided – a boat, bait and gear – but also a diverse number of permits outside of lobstering that have granted him exposure.

He recently approached Martens about what it would take for him to get a groundfishing permit, which, Martens pointed out, makes him unique.

Most younger fishermen in Casco Bay don’t have the ties to groundfishing that they do to lobstering – the implications of which are especially significant, given the time and skill it takes to learn comparatively more difficult fishing practices, like dragging and trawling.

Compounding the separation, he said the majority of the state’s groundfishermen are approaching retirement age.

“There’s a big thing where people my age don’t know how to do that sort of thing, so that kind of intimidates them. And the people we do know don’t want to share that wisdom,” he said, laughing. “They’re fishermen. They’re kind of stuck in the ways of their own little secrets and tactics. I think you’ll find that.”

Perhaps more significantly, acquiring that knowledge isn’t exactly kid-friendly.

Amy Saxton, a former legislative staffer in Augusta who grew up in a Cundy’s Harbor lobstering family, said it’s isn’t easy for a young fisherman to safely or easily get that exposure.

Groundfishing “is not for the faint of heart,” she said.

At the bar of the Dolphin Marina & Restaurant last week, she sat beside her 14-year-old daughter and lobsterwoman, Lexie Saxton, who has already nearly accrued enough hours lobstering to reach the capped number of traps she’s allowed with her commercial student license.

Unsure of what she wants to be when she grows up, Lexie described lobstering as a hobby she learned from her grandfather.

Compared to other fisheries, lobstering is “the only thing I have time for,” she said, noting that she can make enough money hauling traps off the tip of South Harpswell, where she moors her 18-foot pointer, I Mean Bu$ine$$.

With groundfishing, on the other hand, “you need a bigger boat,” Hawkes added from his home near the Cundy’s Harbor wharf, and “at least five guys” to crew.

Hawkes has a cousin who occasionally groundfishes and will embark on offshore voyages that can last for days or weeks.

That isn’t conducive to a school-aged fishermen, he and Saxton said.

The equipment can be prohibitively expensive, too, Martens added, especially for those who were not born into fishing families that already own equipment and resources.

“You’ve got to have a business plan,” he said. “That’s a hard place for a young fisherman to start.”

Added to that, while Maine’s fishing heritage has produced long lines of fishing families with access to financial resources, Martens said, the age of the commercial fisherman is rising, and the state needs to consider ways to reduce barriers for kids who don’t have the same access.

Complex regulations

Then there’s the increasingly complex system of permitting – something getting so complicated, Martens said, that “even people who have been doing this for 30 years” get confused.

Broken into state, federal, and shared permits adhering to guidance from regulatory bodies, each permit is tailored to the history and conservation needs of a specific fishery; there is no way to easily generalize the system, he said.

Back at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster, Josh Todd said he was making new memories of watching his fisherman father, but they take place on shore: filling out the long trip reports he has to submit to keep his various permits.

Lobstering is an outlier in this sense, Martens pointed out.

Todd, Hawkes, and Saxton are all examples of fishermen and women who took advantage of state student licenses – Todd is enrolled in the Maine Lobster Apprenticeship Program – which allow them to sell commercially and gradually work up to more traps at a young age, until they’re eligible for a full commercial license at age 17.

Though daunting, those regulations exist for good reasons: to conserve fisheries for the long term, they nearly all agreed.

With that in mind, Martens and Coombs said their vision for the next generation of fishermen is to empower and educate them – to make them innovators.

“We haven’t even talked about aquaculture,” or the other developing economic opportunities tied to marine environments, Coombs said Monday. “Hopefully (the Young Fishermen’s Development Act will) create some positivity around the industry.”

In an email Tuesday, Pingree put her trust in that goal, saying that she envisions an implementation of the proposed bill will rely on “the very capable organizations we have in Maine” to use the funding to tailor programs to the region’s needs, “whether in training, education or outreach.”

After returning from his trip to Washington, Todd said the idea of educational possibilities that would innovate and expand his opportunities within the industry appealed to him the most.

“I think that’s genius,” he said. “I think it’s important for fishing to stay alive for kids my age – to learn something besides lobstering.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Kaileb Hawkes, whose grandmother runs Hawkes Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor, got serious about lobstering when he was 12 years old. He turns 17 this week, and will be old enough and have accrued enough hours over the past summers hauling traps to qualify for a commercial lobster license.

Like many kids from fishing families, 11th-generation fisherman Josh Todd, 15, has been lobstering since he was a child. But the Chebeague Island native is unique because of his interest in groundfishing.

For Lexie Saxton, lobstering is both a hobby and a heritage: hauling traps runs in the 14-year-old’s Harpswell family.

4

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.