Diversification for Sustainability – Lobster fishing and Aquaculture in Maine

By Zebadiah Campbell

My name is Zebadiah Campbell. I am an eighth generation lobster fisherman and a second generation oyster farmer from North Haven, Maine. North Haven is an island 12 miles out to sea in Penobscot Bay. The island is home to a year round population of 350 people and 45 of these islanders are licensed commercial fisherman. This small number of fishermen make for a close knit, and sometimes high tension relationship between the fishermen themselves. We all work very closely with one another which can be a blessing and curse. There are times when conflicts happen, however the intimate nature of the small fishing community typically breeds wishes for fair winds and following seas to one another.

Growing up in a fishing family was hard work. My summer breaks from school consisted of 5 AM wake up’s to fill bait bags on my father’s 35 foot Novi boat right next to the Alpha heater in those cold nights. I now have a bad back, but a strong love for the ocean and a passion for making my living on it. I bought my first boat when I was 14 years old. I continued to work for my father during the day, and hauling my gear out of my boat in the evenings.  As I grew older, and more experienced of being captain, it grew more apparent in my mind that I wanted to be at the helm full time. I decided when I was 16 that I wanted to put all of my time, money and resources into fishing my own gear, and building my business from the ground up making my own decisions, so I needed to learn about business management, learning about pay stubs verification and more. By the time I was 18, I had 500 lobster traps and 37 foot fiberglass boat. I was employing two stern-men and gaining more knowledge than I ever could have in the stern. I was loving every minute of it. I now have a commercial licence with 600 traps with a boat and crew big enough to make my living lobstering.

Penobscot Bay is geologically and ecologically ideal for lobsters to use a pit stop in their migratory pattern. The warm water brings them into North Haven, Vinalhaven and Deer-Isle in high quantities in the summer months, making the lobster fishery very profitable for the men and women who wish to put the time and resources into the business here in the midcoast. We have seen the poundage harvested on the coast of Maine increase exponentially in the past 5 years. Annual catches per year has increased from a 90 million pound average to hover around 200 to 250 million pounds a year. I am blessed and cursed to be a young lobster fisherman in this time. The record catches in midcoast and downeast Maine have brought millions of dollars annually to the Maine’s economy directly, not to mention all the lobster rolls and keychains that vacationers buy in the all of the main street gift shops. Along with all of the revenue the lobster fishery is creating, it is drawing more and more people to the lobster fishery. There are hundreds of young fisherman who want to get into the business, along with men and women who have been sternmen for decades who now yearn for a shot at the helm. This is all great news, however it raises a few prominent questions; How many fisherman can the coast of Maine provide for? Are there enough pieces of the pie to go around? Most important of all, why are there so many lobsters around?

The latter has been a concern of biologists, ecologists, historians and fisherman now for some time. Some say that the warming water is driving the lobsters further and further north each year. We have seen the fishing communities of Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut and southern Maine struggle for years. All of which used to be thriving fishing communities. One can only wonder if the trend will continue, and what fisherman can do to prepare for an uncertain future.

I grew up on the first oyster farm ever established on North Haven. My father began the farm in 1999 when he bought 50,000 oyster seed as a birthday present to himself. My family is  lucky to live very close to a brackish pond where a freshwater source, and a tidal ocean inlet meet. This brackish pond provides an ideal nursery for oyster seed, and the tidal inlet gives us bed to grow the oysters from seed to market size. I’ve spent many hours in the freezing cold during low tide harvesting oyster to go to market. I’ve learned many different techniques and skills on my father’s oyster farm. Of which the most important piece of knowledge i’ve acquired is that diversity is extremely helpful to maintaining a successful fishing business. My father uses the oyster farm for a source of winter-time income for our family. Years ago, men and woman on the coast would depend on the fisheries of shrimp, scallops, urchins, clams, fin-fish (herring, pogies, alewives, mackerel) all together for different sources of income. Today, in Maine lobstering is by far the most prominent fishery, and one of the last where it is still possible for new fisherman to acquire a license to do it. This leaves very little room for diversification.

A few very innovative men and women in the mid 80’s and early 90’s decided to put some time and money into growing oysters which have all proven to create very profitable aquaculture businesses. There are almost 20 farms in the Damariscotta river alone, and more and more are popping up on the coast each year. The Maine market for farmed seafood is expanding exponentially, and if you talk to any of the oyster farmers on the coast of Maine, most of them will tell you that they are production limited. They can’t produce enough product to satisfy the demand from restaurant owners and wholesalers up and down the coast of Maine for fresh farmed seafood.

These men and woman have led the path into the revolution of Aquaculture in Maine. Different entrepreneurs have begun to farm scallops, oysters, kelp, mussels and clams in many different spots on the coast. The techniques that fisherman have used and still use to wild harvest some of these species have been detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. However, the practice of aquaculture has proven to be extremely profitable for the farmer, and positive for the health of our underwater ecosystems. While the farming of these species make for a much easier, and low impact mode of harvest.

The future looks bright for the coast of Maine. Many men and women each year are adding aquaculture to their way of life in hopes to keep their businesses sustainable and profitable for the future. The market for farmed seafood has extreme potential for expansion. We are just scratching the surface for new potential ocean farming. The coast of Maine consists of 5200 miles of coastline. It is estimated that if you were to add up all of the ocean area that is being used for aquaculture into one farm, it would fit inside of Rockland Harbor. This gives you an idea for the unlocked potential of sustainable ocean farming. Keep an eye out on the ocean and in the seafood market. Soon you will see many more sea-farers farming opposed to fishing, and in the markets you will see sustainably harvested farmed product opposed to wild caught. I am not alone in wanting to live the rest of my life on the ocean, and utilizing it in a way that will promote health and sustainability for generations to come. Aquaculture is wave of the future on the coast of Maine, and it will give fisherman the key to continuing to look to the ocean for their livelihoods. You can find out about aquaculture and research through different resources. 

I am currently working on a project to bring aquaculture to College of the Atlantic to teach young, aspiring aquaculturists what it means to diversify. While producing fresh, sustainable seafood for the college, the new program will give students and community members a platform to learn about the new wave of ocean farming. The start of the AquaFuture Program will kick off by applying for an aquaculture lease through the Department of Marine Resources. The hope is to start farming kelp and scallops in Frenchman’s Bay as close to campus as possible. After the lease process, we will be gaining support and connectivity through the COA student body and the MDI Community both groups of which are pivotal in the viability of the project. The future health of the ocean depends on us. We have the skills, knowledge and motivation to make the ocean a healthier place. We also have a dire need for food production to sustain a growing population. Let’s kill two birds with one stone, together.

Photo credit: Stacey Cramp Photography

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