News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 29, 2012
Public forum highlights economics of Blue Hill Bay
Discussion points to potential not limited to tourism—or fishing

by Anne Berleant

In “an effort to get input from local towns,” the Hancock County Planning Commission held a series of public forums on Blue Hill Bay, which ended on November 26 at Ellsworth City Hall.

This third and final session focused on fisheries, tourism and economic development in the eight towns surrounding the Blue Hill Bay watershed.

“This is not a planning session,” said HCPC senior planner Jim Fisher.

For HCPC purposes, the Blue Hill Bay watershed runs from the head of Union Bay tide in Ellsworth to Swans Island, or “everything that drains into the Bay,” said Fisher. The towns included in the forum were Blue Hill, Brooklin, Surry, Mount Desert, Tremont, Bar Harbor, Trenton and Ellsworth.

Fisher posed the question: Is there an opportunity “and do we have some strength” to seize an opportunity for economic development based on Blue Hill Bay?

The 16 people attending the forum represented municipal, biological and aquaculture interests.

“If we think what are [the bay’s] major resources, we think of tourism, fisheries and real estate,” said Barbara Arter of Barbara S. Arter Associates and Science Information Coordinator at the University of Maine.

Commercial fishing: the raw numbers

Arter presented slide after slide of economic data of commercial fishing in the eight Blue Hill Bay watershed towns that she compiled from state and municipal resources.

“I can only tell you, this is the only data that’s available. It’s open to interpretation. There are so many other pieces,” Arter said.

As a whole, Maine is eighth in the nation for total pounds of commercial fish landed, but third in monetary value. One-third of its catch is lobster, which accounts for three-fourths of its value.

“This is going to be a reoccurring theme all night,” Arter said.

Hancock County is tied for first place with Knox and Cumberland counties for fish landing amounts in Maine.

With 270 million pounds of total fish landed in Hancock County in 2011, valued at $426 million, “our marine resources are pretty important,” Arter said.

The heavy commercial fish landings translate into a high number of harvesters, or license holders, in most of the eight towns under discussion, with Blue Hill topping the list at 122. Brooklin had 42 and Surry 29, and half of all licenses were for commercial lobster fishing. The Department of Marine Resources compiled these numbers for 2011.

“There’s a lot more people who work in fishing,” said Jesse Leach, owner of aquaculture business Bagaduce Oyster Company and a Penobscot resident. “These numbers are actually much bigger.”

Where a harvester lives is not necessarily where he fishes, and a license holder employs others, such as sternmen, who don’t hold licenses, Leach said.

The same response by Leach and others in attendance was leveled at Arter’s data on the number of trap tags issued, with Blue Hill’s number reported as 5,660, Brooklin 4,059 and Surry 2,455.

Add in the businesses that support fisheries, and the total money generated “is much more significant than these numbers,” said Leach.

“Put it up against tourism,” said John Kelly, an Acadia National Park planner.

Coastline attracts tourism—and aquaculture

Most people at the forum agreed that tourism was a larger industry, but that commercial fishing on coastal Maine was a big part of tourism, from fresh lobsters to working fishermen and waterfronts.

Surveys with area chambers of commerce representing the eight towns of Blue Hill Bay showed that they “mainly lean towards tourism” for interest in economic potential, Fisher said. Between lodging and retail sales, “recreation is a pretty significant business.”

Tourism ranks right up there, too, with over $186 million spent in Acadia National Park and communities near the park in 2010, according to the National Park Service.

But both tourism and commercial fishing, including aquaculture, provide “spin off industries,” from the roadside clam shacks, connected to both industries, to boat storage and bed and breakfasts.

“Fisheries support more of the tourist industry than we can quantify. People want to see fishermen at work and lobster buoys floating in the bay,” said Joe Porada, who farms oysters and quahogs in Goose Cove and has applied for a lease in Surry’s Morgan Bay.

Porada and Leach both put forth aquaculture as a way to sustain commercial fishing apart from the lobster industry.

“I’m concerned with the lack of shellfish in the wild,” said Leach, who attributed it to higher pH in shore beds from acid rain and a proliferation of green crabs.

“We have a very fertile area” in the Blue Hill Bay, said Porada, “and the potential to include shellfish growth and production,” even with the need to “figure out things adverse to them.”

“It depends on which side of the table you sit on”

Natalie Springuel of the Maine Seagrant Program facilitated a discussion with all who attended.

“The [fisheries] data was flaky,” said Bill Matlock, a town of Surry selectman, where an aquaculture lease application is pending at the DMR. “It didn’t really address the question we’re raising here…Is fishing by far the biggest industry in the area? How does it compare to tourism? What’s going to happen when aquaculture comes against tourism?”

The value of shore properties was not disputed, but “How you look at it depends on which side of the table you sit on,” said Matlock. “Every one million dollar house built, on the municipal side, reduces taxes relative for that town. That’s not too good,” he added, “if you’re middle income, working men,” and the higher assessed values raise property taxes across the board. “It’s a two-edged sword.”

“To me, all of this stuff is important,” said Porada. “We need to find a way to collaborate.”