In a small, nondescript building, local Port Clyde, Maine fishermen are bringing back a way of life that disappeared when overfishing depleted groundfish stocks. Now, by using more sustainable fishing methods and cutting out the middlemen — local fishermen are once more supplying fish to their own community.
"We’ve created a lot of jobs and there’s potential to create more," said fisherman and co-op president Glen Libby. "There’s a lot of demand for seafood."
With competition from bigger fisheries and stricter federal regulations monitoring the amount of fish that are caught, Libby said he and other fishermen talked about the idea of forging their own fish co-op using sustainable fishing methods—ensuring that fishermen never exceed fish quota but also attracting customers.
The idea was hatched in January 2007 and came to fruition in 2009, beginning with Community Supported Fisheries. Much like the Community Supported Farm model, customers pay a certain amount per week and enjoy an assortment of fresh fish weekly. With Port Clyde fishermen processing and selling their own fish, they are making money while keeping more fish in the ocean.
"Right from the start the fishermen have been making more money," Libby said. Last year, 75 percent of the market came from the Community Supported Fisheries delivery service. Now, Port Clyde Fresh Catch has taken off and includes restaurant and farmer’s market sales as well as online at www.portclydefreshcatch.com.
The enmity between local fisheries and industrial fisheries runs deep. In 2007 Earthjustice filed a petition representing the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association (Glen Libby is chairman), aiming to restrict big industrial trawl ships from areas of the ocean where groundfish populations are scarce. Libby and other Port Clyde fishermen for years relied on groundfish – including cod, haddock, flounder and sole—as the main part of their catch but now must focus their fishing on lobster, shrimp and other seafood.
Last week, a federal magistrate judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to revisit this issue and, hopefully, restrict the big industrial ships from these vulnerable areas. As he waits for these groundfish populations to grow, Libby spends most of his time off a fishing boat and managing operations at Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Libby says it’s too early to tell if the business is sustainable.
"It’s hard, we’re still learning how to be economical enough for the operations and competitive enough with the price," he said. But so far, the local fishing operation has plenty of fans—from fishermen to local residents.
"I’m so impressed with what they’re trying to do," said Betsy Dunn, innkeeper of the Seaside Inn. The Seaside Inn is one of many local operations that buy fish from the co-op.
Nathaniel Winchenbach, 30, is processing manager at the Port Clyde Fresh Catch plant, which means he oversees the filleting and packaging of the fish that comes into the plant. Winchenbach started working on his dad’s fishing boat when he was 7, and spent his college summers back on the boat.
Soon, he bought his own lobster boat but sold it after 10 years because it was hard to make a living. He came to the co-op in March 2009 to make some extra money to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. He’s now been with the co-op for more than a year and doesn’t miss all that time on the boat.
"This feels like the old way of life coming back," Winchenbach said, adding that years ago there used to be local seafood plants all up and down the coast. "This company is sort of the pioneer. It’s cool to be part of the whole thing here, getting back to the old way of life. I’m hoping we can regain that."