Tourism is a big part of Maine's economy. People visit Vacationland for a variety of reasons. Winter brings the skiers, summer brings outdoor enthusiasts who want to take advantage of our lakes and mountains and the beauty of our coastlines, and fall brings us foliage peepers.
But these days tourists want to get more out of their vacation than a good lobster roll and some retail therapy at L.L. Bean; they want authentic place-based experiences. They want to understand what Pine Tree State residents are like and how they make a living, and of course commercial fishing is a big part of that. The Downeast Fisheries Trail strives to give them the kind of experience and knowledge they seek.
"More and more, people are looking for experiences that connect them to the people who live there," says Maine Sea Grant Marine Extension Associate Natalie Springuel, coordinator of the Downeast Fisheries Trail. "They want to learn how they live, they want to meet them, eat what they produce, learn how they're catching lobsters. They want to go home with stories about the place."
Well, the Downeast Fisheries Trail aims to please visitors to this area of coastal Maine located east of Ellsworth. It's an education trail that showcases active and historic fisheries heritage sites in Washington and Hancock County, including fishing harbors, clam flats, processing plants and other related public places. The goal is to educate visitors (and residents, too) about the significance of the region's maritime heritage and its importance to the area economy.
The trail was created in 2000 with the help of the Sunrise County Economic Council, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Maine Coastal Program, Quebec-Labrador Foundation, and the Maine Community Foundation. Initially, it encompassed 14 sites from Milbridge to Eastport in Washington County.
"These organizations recognized this was an opportunity to teach visitors about real people, our fishing history and how it connects to our culture," Springuel says.
Then the trail expanded in 2012 into Hancock County, with new sites selected with input from Down-East communities. Now the trail boasts 45 sites.
"There's a really big diversity of kinds of sites," Springuel says. "There are historical societies and little museums that cover local culture, but there are also places where people can see active working waterfronts."
The trail offers a balance of information about the region's fishing industry. Some sites are devoted to educating people about the industry's past. Others, like the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education and the Penobscot East Resource Center, focus on the fishing industry today, and efforts to secure its future, Springuel says.
"There are folks who are doing a whole lot of incredible work to maintain our fisheries and provide for their future. There's a clear commitment to showcase what some of this great work is doing," she says. "We're not just looking backward, but celebrating the fact that fisheries are still a really big part of our communities here."
Springuel says fishing industry feedback about the trail is positive. "It's been along the lines of, it's great to hear that there's an effort to tell good stories about us and the role of fishing in our communities," she says.
More and more visitors are discovering the trail, too. Trail officials are getting a "ton of requests" for the trail map from individuals, Chambers of Commerce, museums and historical societies.
It's likely the trail will continue to grow. For example, the next step may be incorporating places where visitors can buy locally produced seafood.
Since the trail's expansion in 2012, more suggestions for sites to add are being made. Springuel says the same mix of fishing and tourism industry representatives, historical societies and community centers who participated in the 2012 expansion will again be consulted.
"Back then, we asked them what are the places that really matter in your communities, that can tell a great story about fisheries in our region," Springuel explains. "And we asked, what should not be on a map — we wanted to be respectful of what the communities wanted."
The trail, she says, is about showcasing for locals and visitors what the region already has to offer, rather than creating anything new.
"It's about zeroing in on what makes our region unique, why people stay here, why they're at home here — what makes this place so special and unique," Springuel says. "It's really about highlighting that type of uniqueness."