News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 29, 2022
Residents express grief, frustration at planning meeting
Economic impact study launches amid “perfect storm”

Linda Nelson

Stonington Economic and Community Development Director Linda Nelson promised that the town will be a ferocious advocate for lobstering even as it develops new economic opportunities for residents.

Photo by Jack Beaudoin Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jack Beaudoin

Hoping to solicit ideas to diversify the town’s economy, planners at a September 23 public meeting instead listened as some 30 Island residents, politicians and fishermen vented their anger and mistrust over the latest setbacks to the lobster fishery.

“What we’re dealing with is huge,” lobsterwoman Julie Eaton told the meeting’s facilitator, Jim Damicis, senior vice president with Camoin Associates. Given the Stonington’s highly connected local economy, she said, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a future without lobstering at its center. “Everything here revolves around the fishery… We don’t have any solutions for you now.”

Eaton’s sentiments were echoed repeatedly throughout the meeting, which had been scheduled for an hour but was extended to nearly two hours to ensure everyone could be heard. Speaker after speaker at Stonington Town Hall condemned the recent federal court ruling that accelerates restrictions on lobstering aimed at reducing endangered right whale deaths, and a political system that no longer responded to the needs of local communities.

“First, we feel like we’re not being listened to,” complained lobsterman Mike Dassatt. “And second, we don’t feel like we can trust our elected officials.”

“How is this constitutional?” asked Richard Dunham, who said he was getting out of the lobstering business at the age of 75. “People are making policies and there’s no accountability. They can just pass any law they want, without concern for the people it impacts.”

“We’re being pushed out of the ocean in order to put in windmills,” said Susan Oliver, owner of Island Fishing Gear and Auto Parts.

Building resiliency

Prior to the start of the session, Stonington Economic and Community Development Director Linda Nelson said the breakfast meeting was part of an analysis the town was conducting to prepare for future economic shocks. As far back as a year ago, officials had been discussing the potential impacts of climate change, sea-level rise, industry regulations and a variety of other potential threats. The town’s objective, according to project documents supplied to the Island Ad-Vantages, is to avoid significant impacts such as “the loss of local government revenues, shortage of workers, short term rentals increasing property values, and more.”

“We’ve seen these shocks before,” Nelson said, recalling the 2008 market crash that decimated demand for lobsters, and the collapse of the granite industry 40 years earlier. So the town retained Camion Associates, which had previously performed an analysis of the island’s affordable housing struggles, to begin planning for a more resilient community. The project includes three site visits, an analysis of economic, workforce and socio-demographic trends, an inventory of emerging threats, challenges and opportunities, and multiple progress reviews. By the project’s end in January 2023, the consultants will submit a draft plan of prioritized actions with “roles, estimated cost ranges, time frames, funding opportunities and metrics.”

Given developments of the past month, commissioning the study seems prescient. Officials say they were already observing a downturn in landings and profits in the lobster industry among other concerning economic trends. The meeting, co-sponsored by the Deer Isle-Stonington Chamber of Commerce, had been in the works for months.

But as Nelson acknowledged, “last week things got accelerated.”

And that sense of accelerating crisis made it challenging for participants—many wearing red to support the lobster industry—to speak about opportunities and resilience.

“I think it’s really difficult to look for opportunities when you’re a community in crisis,” Deer Isle resident Marcia Myers pointed out.

“These are scary times,” agreed Holly Eaton, who is running for Maine House District 15 in the upcoming election. “It’s hard to think about our values and assets with all of these threats.”

Nonetheless, Damicis did his best to tie the town’s frustrations to possible solutions.

“Most communities have lacked an imperative to change, an impetus to take action,” he said. “But it is obvious that here there’s a strong imperative to take action. The question becomes how do we transform this into an opportunity, instead of just fear and inaction?”

In Bucksport’s footsteps

Damicis likened Stonington’s current situation to other Maine communities that have experienced economic shocks around base closures and mill shutdowns. But he also noted that unlike those cases, there’s not just one major employer on the Island, but hundreds of small businesses at risk if the regulations and economic boycotts close the fishery.

Towns like Bucksport have managed to survive such economic shocks, he said, because they’ve taken the time to plan ahead, make community investments that anticipate economic dislocations, and adapt not to just one specific threat, but to many different kinds of threats. When the Verso paper mill closed in 2014, that town lost 44 percent of its tax base and its single largest employer. But thanks to the work it did ahead of time, Bucksport was able to overcome that setback and is positioned to thrive despite the uncertainty of the future.

Brian Langley, a former state senator from Ellsworth who is running for the State Senate District 7 seat in November, sat on the Legislature’s Education Committee when the Verso mill closed. He said the Island would benefit from Bucksport’s experience.

“We should reach out to the Town of Bucksport for a full list of the things they did before the mill closed,” he urged. He recalled the town “salting away” funds to offset the closure’s impact on local taxes, securing additional education funding and creating a new industrial park. “They wanted to create 98 small businesses if and when the mill closed.”

Not giving up

Nelson stressed that resiliency planning did not imply that the town was ready to give up the fight over lobstering. She said the town planned to join an appeal filed by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association to overturn the federal district court’s September 8 decision.

“We will be ferocious advocates,” she assured attendees. “We’re going to try and tie it up in the courts for as long as we can.”

“We’re going to do everything as deviously legal as we can,” added Town Manager Kathleen Billings.

But that fight will not put the planning process on the back burner. Damicis said the approach he uses, adaptive planning,” doesn’t rely on either/or scenarios. Furthermore, it doesn’t focus on just one specific threat, but rather helps a community respond to any threat to its economy.

“My work doesn’t assume that there will be no fisheries,” he said. “Just because we’re working on new opportunities doesn’t mean we’re giving up.”