As Maine’s working waterfront came under increasing pressure of residential development, advocates for water-dependent industries advanced an idea.

The concept was simple: use state bond money, combined with private funds, to permanently preserve waterfront land used for commercial fishing.

Dozens of groups persuaded voters to approve this new concept by a margin of 66 to 34 percent in the 2005 election.

The program is working. Since 2006, Maine’s Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program has saved 19 properties with a fair-market value of $17 million, using $5 million in state bond money. These 19 properties support almost 1,000 fishing-related jobs, which generate $40 million annually in income. This program has saved working waterfronts all along the coast, from Scarborough to Beals Island.

If it works in Maine, why not take this concept nationwide?

First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree believes this program which is working so well in Maine, it can help waterfronts around the country, so she introduced the “Keep America’s Waterfronts Working Act of 2009” in the U.S House of Representatives (bill H.R. 2548).

Pingree, who is from North Haven, knows first-hand that the heart and soul of many coastal communities is the working waterfront.

When waterfronts become dominated by expensive private homes and condos, then fishing boats, boatbuilders and marinas disappear. “These businesses, once the backbone of our coastal communities have moved or gone out of business entirely,” Pingree testified during a hearing on the bill before a Natural Resources subcommittee on October 20. “The conversion of working waterfronts to the mistakenly called ‘higher and better’ residential uses, displaces fishermen and others, who depend on working waterfronts, causing economic and cultural devastation to the coastal community.”

As far as Pingree is concerned, we are not doing enough to help working waterfronts, and it is time for the federal government to help out.

Pingree proposes a federal grant program to help states protect working waterfronts. If the bill passes, there would be $25 million in the program in fiscal 2010, $50 million in fiscal 2011 and $75 million for both 2012 and 2013.

This bill also takes a major step in that the definition of working waterfront is extremely inclusive. Waterfront-dependent activities include commercial and recreational fishing, boatbuilding, boat-repair, marinas, transportation and aquaculture.

The money would go to the states, which would have to come up with a working waterfront plan and appoint a committee to run the program in order to get any funds. Grants would also have to be matched at 25 percent by non-federal funds.

This idea takes the best from the Maine program: local input and a requirement for matching funds. But it also goes a step further by broadening the definition of working waterfronts beyond commercial fishing. It is essential to protect commercial fishing access, but in many parts of the country a vibrant working waterfront includes numerous other activities.

Passing this bill would be a major step toward sustaining coastal communities and protecting the future of our nation’s centuries-old tradition of making a living from the sea, according to testimony by Jennifer Litteral, director of Marine Programs at the Island Institute.

Although the country is in the middle of a major recession, the development pressure on waterfronts remains high. It we are to continue to save what is left of this country’s working waterfront, local and state groups need the help of the federal government in this effort.