Keeping It Working

Maine’s working waterfronts are a national treasure — and an economic lifeline to the rest of New England and the world.

Peter Ralston’s shot of the portentously named lobsterboat Under Pressure, in Northeast Harbor, was among the images published in the Island Institute’s influential 2006 report The Last 20 Miles: Mapping Maine’s Working Waterfront.

By Philip Conkling
From our January 2023 issue

Maine’s harbors may seem quieter this time of year, but you might be surprised how much activity continues along our working waterfronts in the dead of winter. Marine terminals, ferries, mailboats, and fish-processing plants continue their daily operations. Shipyards are working on repair jobs put off during the busy summer and fall. The hardcore offshore lobstermen are still fishing, while others are rerigging for winter fisheries like scallops, mussels, urchins, and seaweed.

Just what constitutes a working waterfront? In Maine, as in the rest of the country, the definition includes all-tide access, so that vessels don’t have to time their arrival and departure schedules strictly around the tide. Crucially, a working waterfront is connected to other transportation routes, like roads and railways, and to utilities, fuel, and energy supplies. Working waterfronts in Maine support hundreds of boatbuilding and repair shops, sail-making lofts, marinas, and chandleries, from small enterprises all the way up to Bath Iron Works.

During the early years of statehood and throughout the 19th century, Maine’s working waterfronts were the preeminent locus of the nation’s shipbuilding economy and central to the export of lumber, lime, and granite. But it’s fishing that has always maintained a barnacle-like purchase on even the most far-flung stretches of the coast, providing an economic base beyond the boom-and-bust cycles of other industries. Apart from its fishing ports, Maine also has three deepwater ports critical for maritime commerce. Portland, Searsport, and Eastport are, in name and in fact, centuries-old port towns with long histories of adapting to changing commercial opportunities. Right now, the state is eyeing a large cargo port at one of these sites, to accommodate the development potential of the offshore-wind industry.

Almost two decades ago, when I was president of the Island Institute, the organization took an inventory of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coastline and documented only 20 miles of remaining working waterfront. In 2005, Maine voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional referendum providing tax breaks for commercial-fishing property owners on working waterfronts who relinquish rights to develop their land for more lucrative purposes. The amendment put Maine out in front of a push for federal recognition and funding to protect working waterfronts. Since 2009, Representative Chellie Pingree has repeatedly sponsored bipartisan legislation to preserve waterfront accessibility in coastal states. In 2021, for the first time, Maine allocated funds from its Land for Maine’s Future Program specifically for the protection of commercial-fishing access.

One morning in the late ’80s, I stood on a wharf in Rockland with Eddie Blackmore, then the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Eddie was a square-jawed, plainspoken fisherman from Stonington who, at the time, had led that fractious group of fishermen for two decades. “I can tell when a working waterfront is in trouble,” he told me, “when you come down to the shore and see as many masts as fishing boats in the harbor.” These days, newcomers still occasionally suggest there ought to be a law preventing boats from firing up diesel engines before dawn or forcing bait facilities to reduce their odors. These efforts always fail because people everywhere realize that Maine’s working waterfronts are a national treasure — and an economic lifeline to the rest of New England and the world.