Fishermen just have a knack for telling stories. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association believes that knack can help Maine harvesters re-establish their connection with coastal communities.
The Topsham-based non-profit group is working to protect and restore Maine’s fishing heritage and its fisheries. One way it’s doing so is through a new exhibit on display at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust office in Harpswell. Their stories are part of a project called the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Oral History Initiative.
“There are a lot of coastal communities that have lost their connection with fishermen,” says Ben Martens, the association’s executive director. “We tried to figure out ways to reconnect them.”
That connection has waned along with Maine’s groundfish industry. “We’ve seen a major decline, from 300 boats in the early 1990s to last year 50 boats landing in the state of Maine,” Martens says. “Maine’s seen the largest percentage decline of people participating in this industry. This is a lobster-centric coast, but it wasn’t always that way.”
The idea of collecting Maine fishermen’s stories grew out of that effort to re-establish the bond with coastal communities.
“I love sitting down with the guys I work with and hearing their stories about growing up and working on the water, ” Martens says. Collecting fishermen’s stories emerged as a way to educate the public about Maine’s groundfish fishery, and why it’s important to protect it and the fishing communities that depend on it.
Work on the oral history project began last summer after the association received a grant from the Maine Humanities Council to collect the stories. “We focused on fishermen we work with in the association, guys who’d be comfortable talking,” Martens says.
The association hired oral historian Josh Wrigley to conduct interviews with a variety of fishermen, primarily from Port Clyde, Harpswell and Boothbay, plus a couple from Portland. Photographers Collin Howell, Andy Bustin, Scott Sell and David Bates went out to snap the shots that accompany the interviews, in which fishermen talk about what they do and how the industry has changed through the years.
“We wanted to make these stories more accessible for people and be able to link them to very cool images of these guys lives out on the water and down by the water,” Martens says.
This past summer, the association tasked Bowdoin College intern Audrey Phillips with finding one- or two-minute segments from the interviews to use in each video. The multimedia exhibit, funded in part by the Maine Humanities Council, the Island Institute and The Nature Conservancy, features 13 short videos, including the one below of Port Clyde fisherman Gary Libby.
The exhibit debuted this week at a reception at the land trust office in Harpswell. About 50 people attended the opening, and Martens says he’s pleased with reaction to the exhibit.
“People love to hear stories told by fishermen. We were thrilled by the way people responded to it,” he says. “It was a cool little event. We cooked up scallops from Maine Dayboat Scallops on the grill to kind of give people a taste of some of the seafood they were hearing about fishermen going out and catching.”
Martens says the exhibit can be taken to galleries and coffee shops, too. Exhibit photographs include a quick response, or QR, code that visitors can scan with their smartphones to listen to accompanying interview segments.
“We’re sharing our stories with other Mainers,” Martens says. “But if other places around the country show interest, it’s easy enough to transport the exhibit around to different places.”
The exhibit will be open at the land trust office from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Tuesday, July 22. But even if you don’t live in Maine, you can check out all the videos for yourself by clicking here.
The association hopes to continue collecting fishermen’s stories, conducting interviews in other Maine ports, Martens says. With a little luck, the association will be able to continue sharing fishermen’s stories with their fellow Maine residents.