STONINGTON — It’s not pie-in-the-sky optimism that drives Robin Alden. It’s fish-in-the-sea facts.
Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, a non-profit organization she formed in 2003, believes passionately and rationally in PERC’s slogan, “Fish Forever.”
Focusing geographically on the region of eastern Penobscot Bay, including the Fox Islands, eastward to the Canadian border, Alden wants to replicate the successes seen in what she calls co-managed fisheries, where harvesters and regulators plan together. PERC aims to add a hyper-local layer to fisheries management after federal and state; so local, in fact, that its jurisdiction might include a single cove.
Alden didn’t just wash ashore on Deer Isle with her ideas and vision. She launched the regional trade newspaper Commercial Fisheries News in 1973 and is a co-founder of the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum. She served on the New England Fishery Management Council from 1979 to 1982 and was Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources in the King administration from 1995 to 1997.
There’s a lot at stake, she stressed. Small towns in Hancock and Washington counties like Corea, Steuben, Cutler and Lubec can again rely on economies based on fishing, even if it means moving seasonally from lobster to other species, she believes.
These towns are “a place where fishing still matters,” she said.
The Working Waterfront sat down with Alden on Sept. 10 in PERC’s conference room overlooking busy Stonington Harbor.
WW: Why did you form this non-profit in 2003?
Alden: A couple of threads came together at the same time. I had spent over 20 years being editor of Commercial Fisheries News and then three years of being commissioner of [the State Department of Marine Resources] and my mission in life has been to have Maine fishermen’s voices and knowledge integrated in a substantive way into the management of fisheries so that, as we say at Penobscot East, so we can fish forever.
During my tenure at the newspaper I had been writing editorials saying what ought to happen, and when I was commissioner I had the chance to do some things. I’d been involved in federal and state management and also inter-state management and I really came away from that experience feeling that if there isn’t the hope and the skills to participate in co-management—to have fishermen’s knowledge actively part of the science and the decision-making— then management couldn’t ever get it right.
So I saw the area from Penobscot Bay east as a place where fishing still matters, and where it’s possible to demonstrate that this can be done.
WW: “This” being”¦
Alden: This being a truly multi-fishery, co-managed area where fishermen are actively involved in thinking through how do we operate in this system so that we are not wrecking it and we can still make our livings from it.
WW: I’m not an expert in this business at all, but it just seems to me that in the last ten years or so the gulf between regulators and harvesters—the gulf of mistrust, shall we say—has narrowed. Do you think that’s true?
Alden: I don’t think it’s moved tremendously. Part of the problem, I think, has been over the years the way fishermen experience the marine environment is at a highly local, observational level. And a lot of the fishery science has been, basically, models trying to estimate how many fish or critters are in the ocean over time, which is a pretty abstract concept.
I think there are fisheries where the dialogue is getting much better. And there are fisheries where you still have this gulf.
Ironically, I think that the changes we’re seeing in the ocean are going to help us get together.
For the last 40 years, there was this simplistic approach to fisheries, that we could look at what’s happened in the past and project what’s going to happen in the future. I think the whole society knows that you need to take a more nuanced, complex view of things. Now climate change, and changes we’re seeing in the ocean, are making it clear that we can’t necessarily predict the future from the past.
And that, I think, is going to lead into a receptivity to the type of management approach that I’ve been trying to add to the mix, which is much more dynamic [and] observational: fishermen contributing information, fishermen at the table thinking through the implications of management decisions.
All of that has happened to a tremendous degree in federal and state management. The problem has been, I think, missing this local scale of information and participation.
WW: Explain the concept of co-management that you mention.
Alden: So a lot of managers would say, probably rightly, “We have co-management. We consult with fishermen.” But the issue is scale. So to take the New England situation—groundfish: cod, haddock, Pollack, hake, flounder—are assessed at let’s say a Gulf of Maine-wide scale.
When I said that I left the state [DMR] convinced that Eastern Maine was a place we could show that this kind of more localized participation and management could make a difference, I’m not saying to get rid of either state management or federal management. I want to make that very clear. I’m saying that we need a finer scale level of participation and stewardship and decision-making.
I think a good example of this is the state of Maine scallop co-management that was just started last year. We worked with scallopers all over the state in thinking through, “How would you manage the local areas that have been closed?”
The state then continued to work with those fishermen and made decisions about how to manage those areas, and last year during the scallop season there was a tremendous amount of interaction between fishermen and the state managers, texting, phone calls, you name it. So on a very dynamic basis, they were able to close areas and fine-tune it.
And scallops are good example because it’s a very patchy resource. They are not an average in the state of Maine; they are right off somebody’s point, right in one place.
WW: Skipping to lobster: you pay attention to the lobster fishery, obviously… What’s the future? I mean, with all the price volatility and the big harvest. What’s the crystal ball view?
Alden: Nobody knows what’s going to happen to the lobster fishery. We’re clearly in a bubble ecologically. When you think that Maine has produced, over the long term, 20 million pounds, and we’re now producing 127 million pounds”¦
The price is obviously very low. I mean, stunningly low. All the decisions that a lobsterman makes about what size of boat to have, have been changed by the situation.
And then, what to do in the market? How do you not make lobster a commodity, which is going to permanently lower the price, when you’re catching 127 million pounds of these dying animals?
So then, the other big question is what’s the ecology in the Gulf of Maine going to do? Are we going to have these high levels indefinitely? Nobody knows the answer to that.
It’s assumed that temperature has contributed to this abundance that we’re seeing right now. I think it’s safe to say that it won’t last. But it might last for a significant amount of time.
We caught as many lobsters in Stonington as the long-term average in the state as a whole—20 million pounds. And so for an island of 3,000 people, $44 million is very, very important.
Whether you’re talking about Vinalhaven, or North Haven, or Jonesport or Winter Harbor, Corea, these towns all have the same dilemma, which is “This is what we have.” And that’s it.
So if you’ve got disease going, or if you had an adverse temperature going, if you had a huge run-off event or something, it doesn’t have the ecological resilience that it should.
Right from the beginning, Penobscot East Resource Center has been thinking about how can fishing communities be operating in such a way that they can continue to be fishing communities regardless of what the ecosystem dishes out.
WW: So it was three years you were with the [Gov. Angus] King cabinet? Now that he’s our senator, what did you learn from him? Do you have any anecdote about his leadership style?
Alden: Well, I have one anecdote about his leadership style which I love to tell. It was a privilege to work with his cabinet. He had an amazing, diverse group of smart people.
His advice to me was, “Robin, do what’s right, don’t surprise me and we’ll figure out the politics.” And I thought that was a pretty great working environment.