Overview The American Lobster. Homerus americanus. Drawing by J.H. Emerton. NMFS Historic Images Collection.
Historical Background


Fishing has shaped the economic and social character of many Maine communities but there is doubt as to whether fishing can sustain them much longer. Many of the commercially important species, like cod, have been overfished.


Some people fear that the booming lobster fishery may begin to decline. Retirees and vacationers are increasingly buying coastal property, which change the composition and character of many coastal Maine communities. As these newcomers drive up the cost of living, many fishermen, whose families may have lived in the same community for six generations, often decide to move inland to less costly areas.

Lobster boats in the harbor. Stonington, ME. Photo by Jennifer Isé, NOAA Fisheries.  


Historical Background

Over the past 150 years, groundfish, mackerel, herring, lobster, and shrimp have been among the most commercially important species in the Downeast region.

Dependence on each species has fluctuated as populations decline from overfishing and as consumer preferences change. In 1840 herring was one of the most important regional commercial species while now most of the smoked herring industry is based in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. Recently,salmon aquaculture has become an important industry. Fish processing remains an important industry to the region.


Herring drying on the flakes in the sun; landing, cleaning, washing, etc.at the sardine cannery, Eastport, ME. From photo by T.W. Smillie. NMFS Historic Images Collection.



Historically, lobster was a commercially undesirable species, given to children and indentured servants. Now lobster is the most important commercial marine species in Maine. Harvest levels are at a record high and accounted for 70% of Maine’s fish catch in 2002, up from 44% in 1992. Many individuals, even entire communities, are dependent on the sustainability of the lobster fishery. They will be seriously affected if the lobster population declines. There is increasing concern that Maine lobster populations will suffer from a shell-wasting disease that has already devastated populations farther south, along the Rhode Island coast.

Lobster fishing – boats of Bristol, ME. Drawing by H.W. Elliot and Capt. J.W. Collins. NMFS Historic Images Collection.


Groundfishing was the first industry established in colonial America. Groundfish species include cod, halibut, haddock, redfish, and flounder. For the past 400 years, groundfishing shaped the culture of the New England fishing industry and drove its economic development. However, groundfishing is no longer a viable industry in much of the region due to overfishing. In the eastern part of Maine, landings are at a 500-year low. As a result, groundfish fishermen are also currently scarce. Most local groundfish permit holders do not fish anymore or only do so part-time.


Winter Flounder
Atlantic Cod
Source: the NEFSC Historic Photos, Lineart Collection
Dressing halibut on deck of schooner for icing in the hold. From photo by T.W. Smillie, 1882. NMFS Historic Images Collection.


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