With the change in time, the increased breeze and the piling up of leaves, it is clear that the season is changing. It’s not that we have recently begun the official season of fall, but rather that we are entering late fall, when the changes are starkly apparent. Most of us see these changes on the land, but those working on the water experience them more directly, and in ways that impact when they fish, what they fish for and where they fish.
Seasonality in fisheries was the topic of a recent event entitled “Fishing Through the Seasons” that was presented by the Cundy’s Harbor Library, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, the Holbrook Community Foundation and the Harpswell Anchor. It was part of the “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community” conversation series offered by the partnering organizations.
The panelists were Tom Santaguida, who has been fishing for more than 50 years for a variety of species and now focuses on lobster and crab; John Herrigel, a member of the New Meadows River Shellfish Co-op and partner in Maine Oyster Co.; and Monique Coombs, director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and member of a multi-generational fishing family on Orr’s Island.
The presentation included a walk through the seasons, beginning with fall, since that’s where we currently are, then into winter, spring and summer.
Fall is one of the busiest seasons for most fisheries, with water conditions good for growing and weather conditions good for harvesting. It’s the season where you can find the greatest variety of local seafood — oysters are at their peak, lobsters aren’t too far offshore, bait fish are still around, and the coves haven’t iced up for shellfish diggers. This is a very busy time for everyone working on the water and trying to get in as much harvesting as possible before winter.
Winter brings a kind of bedding down for some fisheries, with oyster cages being sunk to the bottom and inshore traps being hauled out. For others, like scallopers, winter is prime season. Many in the lobster fishery add scallop fishing in the winter. When spring comes, there is sometimes a bit of a break, but soon it’s time to get ready to go all over again — to pull the oyster cages to the surface, repair nets and get traps back in the water. Summer can be a marathon of activity for some fishermen who try to get out on the water when the weather is best and tourist season is at its peak.
While there are many differences between what happens in, say, the lobster fishery versus the pogy fishery, the similarity is that the harvest of any type of seafood has its own seasonal cycle and rhythm. These cycles shift from year to year, but a bigger shift has occurred in recent years.
As Tom Santaguida put it, “For a guy my age, it’s nice to take it easy in the winter. I used to go hard and I can’t do that anymore. It works for me, but for the young guys, it’s tough. You used to be able to fish for different species at different times of year, but those seasonal opportunities don’t exist now. Either the resource isn’t there anymore or you can’t get a permit.”
Because fishermen are now often limited to a single species or group of species, like groundfish, they have to make the most out of that season. This can mean staying on the water later into the season or heading further offshore. It requires people to go out in rough weather and stay out overnight since they are further from shore. This has been particularly challenging this year with the shortage of labor leaving many people to fish solo, which is not an ideal situation.
Another major shift in the seasonal cycles of Maine fisheries has been changes in ocean conditions. These cycles have never followed a set schedule. You can’t pick a date on the calendar and say, “That’s when it’s time to take traps out.” It changes every year depending on the particulars of that year. In recent years, those dates have become less predictable. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine have meant that target species stick around longer. But increases in severe weather events can make it trickier to get out on the water.
Strange species have been showing up as well. With changes in ocean currents, warmer waters and increased storms, oddities show up in nets, cages and traps. Spanish mackerel, which historically don’t come further north than Cape Cod, and blue crab, typically the star of Maryland seafood, have been showing up in Maine. What effect they might have on local species is hard to predict, but their addition to the Gulf of Maine ecosystem is certain to have some impact, whether they become a nuisance or a direct threat to a commercially harvested species.
While we are now officially heading out of fall and into winter, there is still plenty of local seafood to be enjoyed. And, as Monique pointed out, you can freeze just about any type of seafood to enjoy it year-round. This is a great way to support local harvesters and connect with Harpswell’s heritage.
If you are interested in listening to the recording of “Fishing through the Seasons” or learning about upcoming presentations in the “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community Conversation Series” that the partner organizations plan to offer in the spring, please email Julia McLeod at email@example.com.
Susan Olcott, of Brunswick, is the director of operations for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. She has a weekly column, “Intertidal,” in The Times Record, and writes for Maine Women Magazine.