Along the Maine coast, March madness for many people has more to do with fishing and boatbuilding than with who is playing whom in NCAA basketball. Each March, two large and increasingly significant events bring together large cross sections of Maine’s working waterfronts –the Fisherman’s Forum in Rockport and the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland.

The first weekend in March, over 2,000 fishermen, suppliers, processors, government regulators, (“fishcrats” in Mike Brown’s memorable term), and recently environmentalists, along with everyone’s wives and children, attend the three-day Fisherman’s Forum at the Samoset Resort overlooking Penobscot Bay. Then two weeks later, over 7,500 visitors pour through the doors of the old locomotive factory buildings along Portland’s working waterfront to see and dream about the latest designs from Maine’s wooden, fishing and luxury boatbuilding industry. Together, the two shows present a comprehensive picture of the economic and cultural health of Maine’s working waterfronts.

Let’s start with the boatbuilders’ show because the news there is almost uniformly good. Maine’s boatbuilding traditions have long inspired almost fanatical devotion from generations of loyalists who have bought boats from a host of venerable commercial and luxury boatyards. There are many legends along the coast, and many of them continue to produce astonishing new designs, from the lobster boat innovations down at Jonesport-Beals to Ralph Stanley’s shop in Southwest Harbor and everyone on either side or in between.

In the luxury boat business, Hinckley is still a brand icon, but no longer for sailboats (a year ago they didn’t build even a single hull), but for their line of picnic boats. Lyman Morse in Thomaston and the Hodgdon Brothers yard in East Boothbay, one a newer business, the other a multi-generational enterprise, continue to launch spectacular one-off designs such as SCHEHERAZADE along with lines of old classics, not to mention innovative craft in aluminum and other high-tech materials. Rockport Marine, one of the best traditional wooden boat building yards on the coast, just launched the GODSPEED, a beautiful wooden replica of the small ship that brought colonists to Jamestown in 1607 for Virginia’s quadricentennial celebration next year.

Maine boatbuilders have also just won a $15 million national economic development grant to help more yards develop new competitive edges and to market to broader international audiences. Employment and revenues are, if not booming, increasing rather nicely thank-you-very-much, and the prospects for the future look good.

The economic picture in the fishing industry is much murkier, depending on which fishing sector one is considering. The lobster industry is a good news-bad news story: Maine lobstermen brought home more money than ever before in history — just under $290 million — and that’s just to the fishermen at the wharf, before considering any multiplier effects to bait dealers, trap makers and GMC truck dealerships.

The bad news is that lobster landings actually dropped in 2005 from the previous year — down an average of 10 percent along the coast — and 20 to 30 percent in several localities. Those who follow the industry carefully may recall a prediction that a group of Maine’s independent lobster scientists, led by Bob Steneck, Lew Incze and Rick Wahle made back in 2000 based on their research of the ecology of the lobster fishery. Their long-term data sets indicated that the number of little lobsters settling on the bottom of their research sites along a very large swath of the coast had declined substantially since 1995. If their models and understanding of lobster survival and “recruitment” into the fishery were correct, they asserted, lobster landings would begin declining four or five years down the road when those little lobsters grew up and got caught. They pretty much hit the nail right on the thumb.

Before we all jump off the deep end, however, it is important to note that “post larval” settlement has substantially increased in recent years since this low point six years ago. The health of the lobster industry and all the small coastal and island towns that depend on this single fishery, therefore, appears to be experiencing a modest cyclical dip. The best evidence suggests that we are not at the brink of a more significant downward trend in landings such as the industry experienced for the four decades between the late 1940s and the late 1980s when lobster landings began ticking inexorably upward to the stratospheric levels we currently enjoy — and at our peril, expect.

The picture of the other great part of Maine’s legendary fishing industry — cod, haddock and flounder — that along with other of their cousins are known as groundfish is a bad news-bad news story too. Of course, it’s hardly news at all. Gulf of Maine cod landings, once a staple of small town fleets from Saco-Biddeford all the way to Lubec, have been in grave trouble at least since 1991 when the Conservation Law Foundation successfully sued the U.S. government for its failure to prevent overfishing 15 years ago. The big story is that now almost everyone, even fishermen and Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, now agrees that the management structures that underpin New England fisheries regulation is hopelessly inadequate to the task of preventing continued overfishing. That is news.

Every two or three years for the past 15 years, the New England Fisheries Management Council has gone through an excruciating process to limit fishing pressure on groundfish in the Gulf of Maine. They do this by ratcheting down the “days at sea” regulations, establishing trip limits for vulnerable species like cod, and by closing large areas to all groundfishing. Each time, the new regulations force a few more fishing boats out of business — or out of existence. The loss of fishing boats has been almost exclusively smaller boats in smaller ports along the entire Gulf of Maine coastline, and today there is not a single groundfish boat east of Port Clyde still fishing on the Maine coast. The remaining fishing boats simply get bigger and more efficient. They adapt by intensively fishing up to the perimeters of the closed areas, where they are required to throw back massive amounts of prohibited “bycatch.” Nothing much is accomplished, except a few owners of the remaining boats get appointed to the New England Council to make the rules for everyone else.

If this sounds like a recipe for a continuing disaster, you get the picture. So why not try something really new? “Really new” to many people (including a worrisome number of environmental organizations) means “privatizing” the fishery by establishing individual quotas that can be bought and sold, supposedly giving individual fishermen an incentive to conserve some fish for tomorrow — you know, because you own them. There is some evidence that these “ITQ” regimes, as they are known, can lead to greater conservation, but they almost inevitably lead to a corporatized fishing industry dominated by a handful of large fishing businesses. Fishing communities wither.

A “really new” approach that might actually work in New England would be to draw a distinction (and a line) between offshore and inshore fishing and make fishermen choose where they are going to fish. Big boats would mostly choose to fish offshore where there would have be more flexibility in order to supply what markets remain. Smaller boats would fish inshore. There would need to be smaller fishing councils regulating the inshore areas and their plans would have to be subject to the approval of the New England Council. I believe there would have to be real and adequate scientific assessments that established community based quotas for inshore areas. The idea is to drive decision-making and regulation down to the scale where finer ecologically based decisions make sense and where fishermen have enough of a stake in the future to enforce the rules.

This approach is what the seven lobster zone council structure has accomplished, and it has largely been a success — after the messy business of establishing a democratic structure sorted itself out. To save both the fish and fishing communities we need to try something different. Our present course leads inexorably to a handful of really big boats out of two or three ports catching whatever fish remain. As Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources, George LaPointe, recently observed, insanity is doing the same failing thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

If March and its madness can finally give way to a gentler season, why can’t fishing’s Old Regime make way for something different too?

Philip Conkling is president of the Island Institute.