Fishermen Break Tradition To Keep Jobs
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the small fishing village of Port Clyde, Maine, some determined fishermen have broken with tradition in an attempt to hold on to their way of life. They no longer try to catch as many fish as possible and sell them at auction. Instead, they've formed some unusual alliances. They want to learn how to fish more sustainably and market their fish directly to the public.
Rachel Gotbaum reports.
RACHEL GOTBAUM: In Port Clyde, almost everyone fishes or is related to someone who does. Dougie Anderson started fishing here with his grandfather when he was just six years old.
Mr. DOUGIE ANDERSON (Fisherman): My goal all my young life was to be the youngest captain on the coast, and boats was everything to me.
GOTBAUM: Anderson says Port Clyde's waters used to be teeming with cod, flounder and other groundfish, but by the 1970s, commercial fishing got easier.
Mr. ANDERSON: And all of a sudden, we got a brand new fleet coming into New England. We had every piece of electronic equipment we needed. We had boats that we could fish more weather, and virtually, a fish had no place it could hide.
GOTBAUM: Years of overfishing and increased fisheries regulations have taken a toll here, and most of Maine's commercial groundfish ports have gone out of business.
Fishermen in Port Clyde managed to hang on until a few years ago, when the government decreased the days they could fish, just as fuel prices skyrocketed.
Glenn Libby has been fishing in Port Clyde for 40 years.
Mr. GLENN LIBBY (Fisherman): It got really tough. You weren't making much money, getting behind in your bills. It was easy to think about giving up.
GOTBAUM: So what did they do?
Mr. LIBBY: We got mad, I guess, stopped blaming other people, tried to find solutions.
GOTBAUM: The fishermen in Port Clyde realized that they had to change the way they did business in order to survive. Instead of competing against one another, as they had done for generations, they formed a co-op. They began imitating the local farmers here, delivering batches of freshly caught seafood weekly to individual customers.
Glenn Libby says it was a decidedly humble beginning.
Mr. LIBBY: We started out doing it with shrimp. We had about 30 people sign up to buy a five-pound bag of shrimp every week.
GOTBAUM: To save money and get the best price for their fish, the Port Clyde Cooperative opened its own fish processing plant. In most cases, these fishermen can eliminate the middle man by filleting and packaging their catch and sending it out directly to farmers markets, health food stores and restaurants.
Port Clyde Fresh Catch, as it is now known, is becoming popular with chefs whose customers are demanding local and sustainable foods.
Mr. JOSEPH MARGATE (Chef, Liberty Hotel, Boston): And then this is the (unintelligible) for the pork. And we need basil.
GOTBAUM: One of those chefs is Joseph Margate of the Liberty Hotel in Boston. He says he buys his fish directly from the Port Clyde fishermen whenever he can.
Mr. MARGATE: The whole idea of the menu is to put, you know, that your crab or your lobster or your halibut comes from Port Clyde. That's a better story.
GOTBAUM: So far, Port Clyde Fresh Catch is not making much of a profit, but business is growing.
John Sackton is editor of Seafood News. He says what's happening in Port Clyde is becoming a model for small boat fishermen across the country.
Mr. JOHN SACKTON (Editor, Seafood News): The fishermen don't have the ability to make up their business by volume, so in order to keep fishing, they have to think about this in a different way. It does allow them to stay on the water and stay in the business.
GOTBAUM: The new business model for the Port Clyde fishermen is not just about how they sell their fish, but also how they catch it. They're now collaborating with the same environmental groups that they once battled to learn how to fish in more sustainable ways.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
GOTBAUM: Back at Port Clyde Harbor, Glenn Libby's brother Gary is showing off his new environmentally sound fishing net.
Mr. GARY LIBBY (Fisherman): This is a seven-inch square mesh cod end. It's larger than the legal size mesh. The reason for using this is to let the smaller fish get out and rebuild the fish stocks at a faster rate so that we're not the last fishermen in Port Clyde.
GOTBAUM: The fishermen in Port Clyde say they're starting to see greater numbers of fish in the waters here again. But Glenn Libby says that even with the big changes they are making now, it could take generations to repair the fishery.
Mr. GLENN LIBBY: I've got a 15-year-old grandson, and all he wants to do is go fishing. And if we don't have a viable business, he's not going to be able to do it.
GOTBAUM: For centuries, fishermen everywhere have tried to make the best living possible by catching the most fish possible. But with fewer fish in the sea and greater restrictions on just what they can catch, the fishermen here in Port Clyde are learning that it's less about the number of fish they catch than marketing the very best fish.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum.