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Struggling-To-Survive Waterfront

by Maine Senator Dennis S. Damon

A cultural divide is eroding our heritage. It is less like a storm with crashing waves and howling gale-force winds than a slow steady creep of that flooding tide. It is a tide that brings with it conflicting uses, and changing values, both in terms of money and a way of life, and it brings with it change. Just as rapidly as the coming tide covers the mud flats and the seaweed and the rocks, and turns the bay into a watery wonder, so does the tide of change transform fishing communities with boats in the yard, traps stacked everywhere, and wharves with bait barrels, nets drying and perhaps even cod split and air-drying on clotheslines or in the rigging – so does change transform these working communities into residential gems and recreational playgrounds.

My birth home of Northeast Harbor, once home to fishermen and their boats, is now one of the premier yachting destinations in Maine. Does this marina bring revenue to the town? You bet it does. On any given summer day there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of vessels in that harbor, and they all pay to be there. But at what expense does this come? There are few fishing boats left. I have three nephews who continue to fish there, and there are a few more besides them. But none of them are welcome to tie up at the float in the summer. The community that once supported a considerable number of fishing boats and fishing families has shrunk in year-round population. There used to be three grocery stores, now there’s one. There used to be a drug store. Now there’s an art gallery, open only in the summers. Don’t get me wrong—Northeast Harbor booms in the summer. The town fills up with shops and boutiques and they do a brisk business. The people come, but then they go, and what’s left of the community then?

In this debate over working waterfront, I hear some claim that, because they have businesses that people come to in the summer, they and their businesses are now the new working waterfront. To me this concept is unsettling, probably because of my heritage and my idea of a working waterfront. Perhaps in our discussion we need to consider revenue-producing ventures, marinas and restaurants and hotels, motels and B&Bs, and how we can work and live together. But I do not want them in my definition of working waterfront. Maybe we should call my definition, “struggling-to-survive waterfront.”

Three pieces of legislation have been proposed this year to help address the erosion of our traditional working waterfront, of our cultural heritage. It is critical as legislators that we work to ensure that access to our waterfront is not lost to the people who make their living off the sea and their homes on its banks. Two of these bills are currently pending before the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations, and one, I am proud to say, has been enacted.

Legislative Document (LD) 299, RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Permit the Legislature To Allow the Current Use Valuation of Waterfront Land Used for or That Supports Commercial Fishing Activities, was finally passed by the House and Senate on March 8th, 2005. I was proud to co-sponsor the bill, and overjoyed to see its final enactment. If approved by Maine voters, it amends the Constitution of Maine to allow the Legislature to access waterfront land that is used for or, that supports commercial fishing activities, based on the current use of that property.

LD 926, An Act Authorizing a General Fund Bond Issue To Preserve Maine’s Traditional Working Waterfront and Farming Economies by Ensuring Access to Working Waterfront and Farmland, and LD 876, An Act Authorizing a General Fund Bond Issue To Encourage Development of Maine’s Traditional Industries, are both pending before Appropriations. I support both measures and am a co-sponsor on these two bills. LD 926 would send to the voters a bond issue in the amount of $30,000,000, for the funding of the Working Farm Access Program, and to establish the Working Waterfront Access Program. This program is designed to help people who fish commercially gain or maintain access to the working waterfront. LD 876 is also a bond issue being sent out to the voters. If approved, it would provide funds in the amount of $2,000,000, to be used for funding the Farms for the Future Program and to establish and fund a new Fisheries for the Future Program. This program is designed to encourage and help people who fish commercially to join and start new fisheries projects, including hatcheries, cooperative waterfront access space, aquaculture and expansion of traditional industries.

The enactment of these two bond bills would be two more measures designed to help maintain access to our waterfronts. They ultimately fit into a larger picture – a picture in which fishermen can continue to follow in the traditions established by the generations that have come before them.