Collecting Oral Histories from Maine Fishermen

Audrey Phillips ’16 where she usually does her work  — outside on campus

Audrey Phillips ’16 where she usually does her work — outside on campus

As part of its mission to help preserve Maine’s fishing communities, a Brunswick-based advocacy group has been collecting oral histories from longtime fishermen who have lived in coastal towns that traditionally depended on the fishing trade.

Sitting on a trove of these stories, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association this summer hired Audrey Phillips ’16 to put together videos based on the recordings. Phillips selects segments from the taped narratives and produces a slideshow of photos to accompany them. To fund her summertime work, she has a Psi Upsilon Environmental fellowship through the Environmental Studies Program. This grant is part of the Community Matters in Maine Program, which is administered jointly by the McKeen Center and Environmental Studies.

“It’s really interesting to hear from [the fishermen] how technology, the environment and humans are all very intertwined,” Phillips said. “They talk a lot about technology and the increasing efficiencies from technology, and the pros and cons of that.”


Oral History Initiative's Harpswell Opening
The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association are celebrating the opening of the Oral History Initiative on July 16. The event, from 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m., is free and will feature local seafood, drinks and remarks by Maine fishermen. A multimedia display will include videos, audio and photographs. Smartphones are helpful but not essential. The opening is at Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, 153 Harpswell Neck Rd. The exhibition will be on display between July 18 and July 22, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. 

The Fishermen’s Association will use the videos to help educate the public about Maine’s fishermen and the changing fishing industry. “We want to build interest in the general community about why we need to protect our fishing communities, our fishermen and our fisheries resource,” said Ben Martens ’06, the association’s executive director. The association was formed in 2006 by fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine, who realized their way of life was in jeopardy due to declining fish stocks and policies favoring off-shore vessels. Today, the association represents 35 boats, roughly a third of all Maine’s ground fishing fleet. In the early 1990s, Maine had over 300 licensed ground fishermen.

Phillips is working with two supervisors who make up the association’s entire staff; both happen to be Bowdoin graduates. Martens started working at the association in 2011. He hired Lucy Van Hook ’06 in 2012. Van Hook said she derives satisfaction from the organization’s mission-driven work with fishermen, work that helps support sustainable businesses and a healthier ecosystem.

When they were students, both Martens and Van Hook had environmental summer fellowships funded by Bowdoin. “We had great experiences working during these summers — we got so much out of them,” Martens said. He and Van Hook wanted to give a current Bowdoin student a similar professional experience in a small nonprofit. “There’s something different about being thrown neck-deep into the nonprofit world, and into a nonprofit that is trying to do too much with too little!” Martens said.

This summer, Phillips will also visit restaurants and fish distributors to encourage them to sell more locally caught ground fish, such as pollock, haddock and cod. “Right now, if you were to go to most fried fish places, they’re selling frozen haddock from Norway or frozen cod from Russia,” Martens said. “We want to encourage people buying seafood to ask where it’s coming from, and for the people who are selling local seafood to talk about why they’re selling local seafood.”

Phillips said she hopes to also head out to the shore with a video camera to collect more oral histories. “With my environmental studies background, I’d be personally interested in hearing how fishermen perceive ocean acidification, sea level rise and temperature change, and whether they’re seeing effects of these,” she said.

Phillips, who is from Seattle, Wash., is an earth and oceanographic science major and an environmental studies minor. She first became interested in the Fishermen’s Association fellowship after Martens visited her environmental studies class last year. “In Environmental Studies 101, they talk about fisheries management,” she said. “Ben Martens came to the class and he said if you want to make an effect on the environment, fisheries is the way to go. Managing the fish stocks helps them rebuild. You see your changes helping.”

Martens said that in fact he had been given this piece of advice in an environmental policy class he took with DeWitt John, Bowdoin’s Thomas F. Shannon Distinguished Lecturer in Environmental Studies. “Prof. John said if you want to make a difference, work in fisheries, because this problem will be fixed in 50 years,” Martens recalled. “It’s funny how a little throwaway line like that could make such a huge impact.”

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