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Updated: November 29, 2021

New report finds threats to Maine working waterfronts, proposes solutions

boat, traps and dock File photo / Laurie Schreiber Coastal and island working waterfronts are under threat from pressures such as climate change and rising real estate costs, according to a new report from the Island Institute. The report proposes a comprehensive approach to preserve access.

A new report says the lack of reliable access to infrastructure along Maine working waterfronts is a growing threat to the state's fishing and marine industries.

The Island Institute — a Rockland-based nonprofit that works to develop local economies and climate solutions in Maine’s 120 island and coastal communities — recently published the report, called “The Critical Nature of Maine’s Working Waterfront and Access to the Shore.”

The report examines the state of working waterfront access in Maine, outlines the need for a broader strategy around access protection, and makes recommendations for immediate action steps.

Billion-dollar impact

At well over $1 billion per year, Maine’s fishing and related waterfront industries represent a major sector of Maine’s economy.

Working waterfront communities are grappling with pressures both from the sea and from the land, according to the report.

The loss of working waterfront access can set off a cascade of challenges, such as crowding of boat launches and public wharves as fishermen and aquaculturists compete with recreational users for space.

The report identifies a need for:

• Long-term, systemic interventions that recognize the nature of working waterfronts and the pressures they face or will face;

• An entity that looks holistically at challenges to preserving access and can help solve those challenges;

• Technical assistance and institutional support to help coordinate challenges and resources; 

• A proactive approach to identify critical working waterfront businesses.

The working waterfront has various facets, according to the report. They include Maine’s lobster industry, which alone is valued at over $1 billion. Other fisheries, such as the dayboat scallop fishery and aquaculture, have seen increased landings and value in recent years. 

The tourism industry brings millions of dollars to waterfront communities, which are also sustained by small businesses that serve waterfront industries.

“Maine’s ability to continue that economic growth, which includes out-of-state investors in aquaculture farms as well as small mom-and-pop operations and our independent owner operated lobster fishermen, is at risk as access to the shore disappears at an increasing rate,” the report says.

Soaring prices, climate change

Pressures include an increasing trend, particularly over the past year, of the sale of waterfront real estate, at rising prices, to out-of-state buyers for residential use. 

“Taken cumulatively, this trend has a considerable effect on Maine’s working waterfront given the underlying resource necessary to protect access is real estate,” the report says.

The findings, the report continues, “underscore a long existing trend of coastal real estate becoming too expensive for local residents to afford, and an influx of people coming to the state who may not understand or appreciate the importance of our marine industries.”

Climate change is also expected to have a significant impact on coastal communities and marine based sectors.

“On a practical level, climate change means coastal maintenance and existing infrastructure will be more expensive to maintain,” the report says.

Other climate change issues are unknown, including what species will exist in the Gulf of Maine in the decades to come and how the state and industry will regulate and harvest future fisheries.

A number of state and municipal programs are already in place to support working waterfront infrastructure and access. That includes the state’s Land for Maine’s Future’s Working Waterfront Access Protection Program which, since 2006, has preserved 27 properties as working waterfront through restrictive easements on development. 

But programs are disparate and only scratch the surface of what’s needed, the report says.

Comprehensive plan

The report calls for a comprehensive, statewide plan and offers a series of recommendations for action steps, including:

• A statewide foundation that buys and protects working waterfront real estate and oversees Maine’s blue economy interests. The foundation would include fishermen, real estate agents and representatives from the Department of Marine Resources.

• A study of the economic impact of Maine’s seafood industry, as it exists today and the potential in the future, as well as planning for climate change and its potential impact on species.

• A needs assessment of coastal communities most at risk for losing access and delineation of fisheries most at risk as a result of loss of access.

• A list of properties and areas most valuable to fishing communities.

• An analysis of the cascade effect of access decline and how it triggers new problems in coastal communities.

• A statewide marketing plan educating new home buyers, tourists and residents about working waterfront.

“Once access points are gone, they do not come back,” the report says. “The need to protect existing access is both urgent and critical, and while we need to understand more comprehensively the overall economic impact of our seafood industry, we cannot wait for that data to act.”

To view the report, click here.

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