I grew up in a small fishing town in Maine. Our coast—longer than California’s—is spectacular, with beaches, rocky coves and estuaries that make for a postcard-perfect vacationland. But amidst the tourism, many coastal Mainers still survive by way of the sea, enduring often harsh conditions, relying on ingenuity and grit, and forging a connection to the environment earned through generations on the water.
Over the years I’ve seen life on the water change. Fishermen who once relied on diverse fisheries—and mastered diverse techniques—now focus almost solely on lobster. And many worry about the future: Gulf of Maine waters are warming and the privatization of coastal land has diminished what’s known as the working waterfront, making access more difficult.
In 2018, I refurbished a vintage travel trailer, The First Coast Airstream, teamed up with Maine photographers, and took off along the coast to record the stories of some of the Maine residents who still live and work by the sea. What I found were men and women, young and old, fishermen, harvesters and sea farmers, each with an intimate knowledge of and connection to the environment. Here are four of their stories.
Ernest Kelley, 93
Ernest Kelley of Jonesport, Maine, 50 miles or so from the Canadian border, was raised on boats. From the 1960s through the ’80s, it was common for fishermen to catch a variety of species. Kelley dragged nets for scallops, mussels and bottom fish, handlined for cod, and dug in the mud at low tide for clams when he needed to. He spent nights away from his wife, Marilyn, and four boys, sleeping on fish draggers 30 miles offshore.
Like many fishermen of his generation, Kelley is a keeper of knowledge that has been all but lost. As fish stocks declined and regulations tightened, the sardine (young herring) industry in Maine collapsed, and now lives on only in the memories of older seafarers like Kelley. Stop-seining, rarely done today, is a method where Kelley and his crew would row out in shallow dories at night to scout for schools of herring feeding in the many coves around Jonesport, then draw nets up around them. “There were so many herring along the coast then,” says Kelley, “you had a job to get rid of them after you caught ’em!”
Kelley’s memories of stop-seining are some of his favorites. “You travel along at night and you can see [the herring]. The water would be what we call ‘fire,’” he recalls, the herring rising from the depths to feed, darting just under the surface with silvery iridescence. “You can see ’em shooting at certain times. If it was foggy and that light catches, you’d probably see ’em more. They’d be up in the water and you could find ’em.” It was often an all-night affair. “You never got much sleep. I’ve gone to sleep right in the stern of a dory.”
The fisheries have changed a lot in Kelley’s 93 years. There is more money to be made, but fewer species to catch. It’s a different world, but one that Kelley still takes part in. Just this past year, he gave his lobster boat to his great-grandson, Anson, the fourth generation of the Kelley clan to currently hold a lobster license. “I said I wasn’t goin’ again, but the boys [are] bound I’m gonna go with one or the other and set a few traps. I don’t know. I might!”
Amanda Lyons, 33
Wormweed harvester and clamdigger
Living in Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States, Amanda Lyons finds her life dictated by the seasons. As a full-time boiler technician, the cold Maine winters keep her busy. She digs for clams all year, but the digging really picks up in late spring when the mud thaws.
“I’ve gone down [to the mudflats] in snowshoes to pick five to 10 pounds, just so I had dinner in the middle of winter, sometimes out till two or three in the morning so I can pay the electricity bill. Being a fisherman, working the seasons, is a very hard time. The thing is, that’s what this place sees.”
Seasonal work is the backbone of the economy around Lubec. In spring, summer and early fall, Lyons digs clams, harvests periwinkles (“wrinkling”), tips spruce trees for wreaths and gathers wormweed for bait-worm dealers. She’s one of the only wormweed harvesters in the state. The industry remains unregulated and she makes her own rules, taking only what’s needed.
“I gotta leave stuff behind. Where I’m picking it, I have to have a rockweed source, I have to have a freshwater source, I have to have marsh grass. It’ll grow back faster if I leave some behind. So I’ll take patches, then leave a patch. I’ll take a couple handfuls, then leave a couple handfuls. Eventually, if I keep within a specific rotating schedule, that beach will look exactly the same next year. That’s what I shoot for, because unless it grows back, I run out of work. I have to be able to produce 200, 300, 400 bags a week. I can’t take it all and expect to find that many bags a week for months next year.”
Joanna Fogg, 35
Bar Harbor, Maine
Joanna Fogg grew up on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park, and started working on the water when she was 17. After six seasons on a lobster boat and seven years crewing private yachts in the Caribbean, she settled back in Bar Harbor to begin the process of starting an oyster farm with her husband, Jesse.
The couple founded Bar Harbor Oyster Company and, after a two-year wait for an aquaculture lease, started a sea farm in 2017 in a small cove in the Mt. Desert Narrows, a gap between the mainland and the island. “We could work for ourselves, we could be on the water,” she says of her attraction to aquaculture. “And oyster farming is amazing for the environment. We just knew we could get behind it. So we dove in, literally and metaphorically, and tried to figure out how we could grow oysters here.”
Lobster is still Maine’s highest-grossing seafood product, but environmental changes have prompted some Mainers to look to other species. There are more than 150 oyster farms spanning the Maine coast, with more lease proposals every year. Fogg’s business is primarily local—she sells to restaurants in the tourist hub of Bar Harbor, and shucks oysters at events in the summer months. Maine oysters are typically small and the flavor dense and briny, with unique notes influenced by the waters they grow in. “More and more people are realizing that Maine oysters are delicious and that we can grow them. A lot of the skills that we have as traditional maritime people can be transferred into aquaculture.”
So far, her fellow aquafarmers have welcomed the newcomers. “People have been wanting to lend a hand and share knowledge. It’s great to get into an industry where you feel welcomed by fellow farmers, and we always try to do the same. There’s plenty of space here for sea farming, and we need to shift the way we’re producing food on our planet. This is a way to do it.”
Howie Robbins, 50
For Howie Robbins, fishing for Atlantic halibut is actually about enjoyment. “The money helps but it’s just fun doing it, really.” The season typically runs from mid May to mid June, at just about the same time that Robbins and other lobstermen in Downeast Maine—the coast near Canada—are setting their gear for the summer season. Halibut are a tightly regulated species, with commercial fishermen like Robbins allowed to take just 25 fish per year, which he can sell for as much as six dollars per pound. A full-grown female might be 150 pounds, but the largest ever recorded weighed in at 615 pounds. If Robbins manages to catch a big fish, he can make a bit of money before the lobsters start to move into his traps.
Robbins sets his lines in cold, deep Bay of Fundy waters, between the town of Lubec, on the Canadian border, and the Canadian island of Grand Manan. In this part of the Gulf of Maine, tides run hard and high, changing water levels by as much as 28 feet, and creating currents and rapids so strong they pull buoys underwater. “Hauling halibut, you have to haul it on a slack tide, so there isn’t so much tide fightin’ the fish,” he says.
The halibut, which lie in wait on the bottom, can be an elusive fish. Robbins and his crew, Jake Kilton and Dan Wagner, might head out on a tide and catch only one fish on the hundred-hook line they set the day before.
“It’s a weird fishery—trying to figure out where they are and what they’re feeding on. I’ve noticed in the past three years, middle of June, they shut right off. I don’t know if they move; I’ve tried everything. We had a decent one on a couple years ago—couldn’t even hold on to the line. We lost it. If you can’t hang on to the line, it’s a big fish!”