Sustainability on a Maine island Limits: The beauty and the fishery are priceless, the lobstermen value a conservation ethic and nobody's getting rich.

On the Bay

October 02, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IMAGINE A PLACE where the economy is based on preserving incredible natural beauty and supplying some of the world's tastiest food.

Imagine a place where the people voluntarily limit how much they take from their environment and where the number of vehicles is strictly controlled.

Imagine further that almost no new homes can be built -- and when one is, it goes affordably to working members of the community, rather than to millionaires seeking summer places.

With limits, limits, limits -- on everything from how rich you can get, to picking wildflowers and smoking in the forests -- such a place sounds downright un-American.

Or maybe it is a place the rest of America should pay more attention to.

It is not that the sturdy, independent lobstering community on Monhegan Island, 12 miles off the coast of Maine, is a model that could be simply copied by a whole nation.

Neither is it most people's Garden of Eden -- not when winter storms isolate it, or year-round residents must pack their children off to mainland boarding schools for an education.

But with today's increasing environmental interest in "sustainable" communities and economies, Monhegan seems worth examining, having endured more than two centuries based on fishing, and more recently on fishing and nature-based tourism.

And having just won a life-or-death struggle with mainlanders who wanted to open Monhegan's exclusive lobstering zone to all, the island looks set to prosper into the 21st century.

"Sustainability," which I take to mean making a living without drawing down the world's natural capital, is much talked about around our Chesapeake, even as the bay region adds millions of people every few decades.

To see what Monhegan might have to say, I recently took the ferry there from Port Clyde.

Physically, the island is as different from our bay as one could get on the East Coast -- a 1.5-mile-by-0.5-mile chunk of rock, in profile like the back and tail of a great whale, with cliffs soaring to 160 feet above the ocean.

Houses, two hotels and a few restaurants cluster near the island's single, small harbor, which has space to safely moor only about 20 boats.

Monhegan's beauty is an extraordinary combination of maritime

and alpine -- a drowned mountain peak with nearly 20 miles of winding footpaths threading rock-ribbed meadows of wildflowers and spruce forests. At every turn, these vistas spill down to the blue Atlantic, where seals bask on the rocks.

In summer, several hundred tourists clog the paths each day, to the point that natives stay inside, much as Tangier Islanders do, until the tour boats depart.

Artists, painting the fantastic interplay of island, sea and light, are stationed at every turn in the paths, and there is a full-time artists colony during the season.

But lobstering, which runs from December to June, remains key to the existence of the island's year-round community, population of around 70.

Though the present community has existed on Monhegan for more than two centuries, all but two of the current lobstermen moved here from elsewhere.

John Murdoch came from Massachusetts 22 years ago. He is one of a dozen full-time lobstermen, "about what the fishery here can sustain," he says. The number of licenses to fish here is limited to 17.

Unlike most residents of Maine, Monhegan Islanders choose to lobster in winter, when catching the crustaceans is harder and slower, but higher prices offset smaller harvests.

The islanders also limit themselves to fewer traps than law allows -- 600 per boat. Maine, with traps increasing so fast biologists fear for lobster populations, is working to reduce other areas to that number, says Doug Boynton, who came here to lobster 30 years ago.

On opening day, Murdoch says, "no one goes unless everyone is ready." Last year, all passed up several lucrative early days until seas calmed so a couple of older fishermen could safely get out.

No one keeps undersized lobsters here, Murdoch and Boynton say -- quite a contrast to crabbing ethics among some Chesapeake watermen.

Both say a strong conservation ethic has been handed down from previous generations; and both mention brothers Doug and Harry Odum, lobstermen here from 1930 until retiring in 1979.

The Odums, bachelors sharing a modest home here, have twice sold scarce and valuable building lots to young people who want to stay and lobster, Boynton says.

"Believe it or not, we really do take the long view [about] keeping this fishing community going," he says.

Recently, Monhegan faced a historic challenge to the unique, exclusive lobstering zone (a 2-mile radius from the island) traditionally granted islanders by the state.

Mainland lobstermen began exploiting a loophole in the law authorizing the zone, plastering the island's waters with thousands of traps.

"It was a battle to the finish," recalls Boynton. "Either we got the state to uphold our zone, or we would not be able to stay out here." After a three-year fight involving the whole community, Monhegan won.

"I think we won because we proved we had a long tradition of having the best conservation ethic, maybe, of any fishing place in the world," Boynton says.

He adds: "We didn't realize until we had to research it, how odd we were, how much we limit ourselves."

Around the fast-growing Chesapeake region, let's hope talk of ,, sustainability continues: But let's recognize that limits have to be part of the discussion.

Perhaps Monhegan's continuing to make a living off natural beauty and delicious seafood begins with something Doug Boynton said:

"If you want to make a lot of money, you don't move here."

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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