In his visit to cod farms in coastal Maine, a contributor to The Economist slings fish food, dons a hairnet and minces garlic ...
At 7:30am, Sorrento harbour’s small parking lot is full of pickup trucks and empty of people. The lobstermen are already out hauling in their traps; lobstering is big business in coastal Maine. Thankfully, I am here to meet cod farmers, who don’t keep such rough hours. I am awaiting my contact on a bench overlooking the placid bay between Sorrento and the hazy mountains of Acadia National Park. The tide is low. A diesel engine rattles somewhere out on the water. I am in no hurry for him to arrive.
The Victorian homes stretched along Sorrento’s waterfront are shuttered and vacant for most of the year. Like most towns in coastal Maine, the population is split between "summer people", who arrive in July and flee at the first bite of autumn air, and "winter people", real Mainers, who live here year-round, many of whom earn a hardscrabble living catering to tourists in summertime and find any job they can get during the rest of the year.
Options are limited. Tourist season lasts two months. The lumber and paper industries are moribund. Some fishing remains, mostly lobstering, but people worry that the stock will eventually crash. Competition from overseas and low prices has nerves frayed: a lobsterman was shot in Matinicus, Maine, an island further south, during a row over fishing territory. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades up here,” a local later told me. “Got to do some carpentry, fishing, digging for clams and picking blueberries to make ends meet.”
My contact arrives. George Nardi, who owns a year-old cod farm off Sorrento, swaps his trainers for white knee-high rubber boots as we discuss the region’s dwindling employment options. “If this project proves successful, farms like ours may offer the best chance to keep working waterfronts alive,” explains Mr Nardi. The farm has four local employees.
In truth, most groundfishermen—who catch fish like cod, haddock, halibut, hake and pollock—have already disappeared, along with their catch. There are only 70 groundfishing vessels left in Maine, less than half the number in the 1990s, and a far cry from decades past. Few working waterfronts remain. Only 20-25 of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coast remain accessible to commercial fishermen; the rest is privately held.
On the dock, Mr Nardi and I are met by Clayton Coffin, the farm manager, who was a wintertime resident of Sorrento before he moved inland a few months ago. (“Was a little too quiet,” he explains.) Mr Coffin swings a motorised skiff up to the dock and takes us out to an old barge loaded with bags of fish food. Most Sorrento fishermen head out with lobster traps and fresh bait. Mr Coffin and his crew bring a leaf blower with a funnel (the top half of a plastic milk jug) duct-taped to a hole cut out of the top of the nozzle. Throwing fish food with a shovel can get tiresome.
The barge chugs around an island, the morning sun now coruscating brilliantly off the water’s surface. Around 250,000 cod flit around five floating inner-tubes held to the ocean floor by cement moorings. Nets drape across the tops to keep the gulls away.
I step off the barge and creep gingerly around the inner-tube as it bobs in the green-blue water. “We do have life jackets available, if need be,” says Mr Coffin with a smile as he lights a cigarette. I am most worried about ruining my notebook if I fall in. But apart from seeing my first live cod, there was little to write down: fish farming mostly involves slinging food pellets, and is far duller than hauling nets far out to sea.
Image credit: dawnzy58 (via Flickr)