Young people who want to learn how to fish don’t usually do that in a classroom. Most of that learning takes place on the water. A new program launching in schools up the coast of Maine this year acknowledges that and tries to meet students where they are already learning.
The Eastern Maine Skippers Program, launched in late September after nearly four years of discussion and targeted development, is designed to help students who want to become fishermen gain the skills and tools necessary to be productive members of Maine’s fishing fleet.
The EMSP will include hands-on projects, and each year, assignments will be structured around one major project. This year’s project came straight from the Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources himself. Commissioner Pat Keliher asked students in the program to investigate the potential viability of a trap fishery for white flounder for Eastern Maine. Students will conduct research, design and build a flounder trap, do some test fishing and more in an effort to report back to the commissioner in May.
Currently there are eight high schools involved, with 40 students. The schools span the eastern coast from North Haven to Eastport.
Nine of the students out of the 40 attend Deer Isle-Stonington High School. At DISHS, there is also a new Marine Studies Pathway, which is a whole-education approach to meeting all the standards for graduation. The MSP is specific to DISHS, while the EMSP is narrowly focused on education.
Todd West, DISHS principal, said the limitations of the school’s Marine Trades program were clear—students were learning how to fish out on the water, not in the school.
“There was already a long history in our community of students already knowing how to fish and set gear, so school wasn’t able to provide much value,” said West. “But fishing in the 21st century, when things are changing rapidly and unpredictably, students need to be able to understand marine ecology and interpret the data themselves.”
As West sees it, there are three different groups involved in the fisheries: lobstermen, policy makers and scientists. “Two out of those three typically go to college and have a common background,” said West. His goal is for young fishermen to gain the skills and confidence to be able to “make arguments—not just based on emotion and opinion—about how management decisions are made.”
No money is changing hands between school districts, and teaching staff from various schools are getting involved in the project in a collaborative way.
Tom Duym, who has taught Marine Trades at DISHS for years, said he’s excited about the program, in part because it is so different from what has come before.
“It’s an intra-school effort, and it makes for a broader cohort,” said Duym. “This is as much about community building as it is about education.”
Enabling young fishermen to connect and learn to speak in the process is something Penobscot East Resource Center Fisheries, Science & Leadership Advisor Carla Guenther wants the program to accomplish as well.
“My hopes are that students from different communities connect with each other,” said Guenther. “And as they become fishermen, they keep the connections across the harbors.”
These connections improve unity when dealing with issues at the state and federal level, said Guenther.
“It’s a chance to recognize the differences and similarities between harbors,” continued Guenther. There are differences in approaches to fishing, and in how the bottom or tide is different. But there are also issues like price, how licensing should work and federal regulations that are opportunities for fishermen to work together. “It’s not very helpful to sit on dock and complain,” she said.
It’s also true that those students who plan to fish tend to stay or come back to their communities, said Duym. “I think this can help make school more relevant to people who end up staying around here and having families, and supporting the school,” said Duym, who talked about how hard it can be to engage students who know they want to fish and are unsure of how traditional coursework relates to them.
“I’d like to help change attitudes,” said Duym, both toward school, and in staying involved in the industry’s regulation. “It’s a long-term investment. We’ll know if the industry stays viable, then we’ll have accomplished something.”
The coursework will be module work, and likely completed by students at their own schools much of the time, while coming together for group work and projects over the course of the year. Technology allows for this module-based model, and also keeps students in various communities connected to each other, said West. The coursework in the EMSP, along with the MSP, fulfills expected outcomes for graduation. “This isn’t a way ‘out’ of schoolwork,” said West.
West’s aim for the project is simple. “I want students to understand the power of their own voice,” he said. “I want to help 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds see how they can do things that impact their lives one way or the other, versus letting things happen to them.”