BELFAST — The concept is simple. Instead of glaring at tourists taking photos of you unloading your gear on the town landing, take a few of them out to haul with you. And charge them.
This scenario may be oversimplifying the idea, but there is ample evidence that fishing and tourism can find common ground.
That campground owners and lobstermen would sit down in a classroom together, as they did Wednesday, Dec. 11 at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center, was itself evidence of their willingness to consider diversifying income and joining forces. The workshop was the first of three along the coast sponsored by Maine Sea Grant, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Lobster Institute, the Sea Grant Law Center and the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront).
“We know that natural resources drive the economy on the coast,” Natalie Springuel of Maine Sea Grant told participants. Fishing, aquaculture and tourism are big parts of the coastal economy, she said, and “more businesses on the coast of Maine are looking to diversify.”
Travelers increasingly “are looking for experiences, meaningful experiences,” Springuel said. “They want to meet the people making a living here.” Rather than just take photos of a lobsterman on his boat, that fisherman should consider “taking people on the boat to make a few extra bucks.”
Tourism niches such as nature, heritage and cultural are among the fastest growing sectors, she said, “so there’s an opportunity.”
But how can it be done legally? And how can it be done without risking a million-dollar lawsuit from a visitor whose hand gets mangled in the winch?
Scott Gunst, a captain himself who is a lawyer from the Philadelphia firm Reeves McEwing, explained the hurdles that must be cleared to carry passengers on fishing boats. A category known as “six-pack boats,” those that carry six or fewer passengers, do not require U.S. Coast Guard inspection, he said, but the vessels must be in compliance with all Coast Guard regulations: life preservers, a throwable flotation device, fire extinguisher, VHF radio and a safety orientation for passengers.
“Be in compliance,” Gunst urged. “It can get very expensive very quickly,” with mounting fines. The Coast Guard does courtesy inspections for would-be passenger vessels, he said, in which problems are pointed out.
Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act comes when a boat owner makes reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities, he said. Boat owners can deny or restrict access to a vessel if there are legitimate safety concerns. If a boat owner denies passage to a person with a disability, the reasons must be articulated in writing, he said.
A larger issue, or so it seemed based on workshop participant questions and comments, is legal liability. Gunst recommended that fishermen planning to carry passengers talk to insurance brokers and learn about their options, rates and concerns.
“In general, you want to get the most insurance that you can,” he said.
Some of the ways liability can be limited are to have passengers sign waivers (although courts typically don’t find them binding); have written procedures on how to handle problems; have enough crew aboard; mark the deck or tell passengers where they may not stand; and explain the nature of traversing waves.
“You don’t really know people’s backgrounds,” Gunst said. “They may be from the Midwest and never been on a boat before.”
Though tourists enjoy hands-on experience, “Paying to play,” such as allowing passengers to haul traps, “is not a good idea,” he said. A way around that dilemma, a workshop participant said, is to have passengers take turns taking photos of the lobsters, while standing back at a safe distance.
Dana Fisher of Maine Sea Grant, one of the facilitators, told the group fishermen in other parts of the country have done such things as hire a bird expert to come aboard, if “birders” are among likely passengers. They also might form partnerships with local innkeepers to offer a day on the boat, and work with their local Chamber of Commerce, he said.
Aquaculture ventures also hold potential as tourism draws, Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told the group. With 180 shellfish, fin fish and plant operations in the state, those touring a bay or river by boat may want to see the operation up close, Belle said.
For the last two years, the aquaculture group has put “interpreters” on ships in the American Cruise line as they pass through Maine, and they explain to passengers how the fish farms work, as they stop for a look.
Some fish farmers offer samples of the products being raised to those visitors, he said, thereby growing their market and educating the public.
Maine is becoming known nationally among “foodies,” several said, and events such as the oyster festival in Damariscotta and the salmon festival in Eastport draw visitors and can boost business for fish farmers, Belle said.
Workshops also were held in Machias and Portland.