An Island Helmsman

An Island Helmsman

Islesboro’s Gabe Pendleton gets to work—for his neighbors and planet

Story and Photos by Jack Sullivan

While roaming from one end of the labyrinth-like yacht yard that bears his name to the other, Gabe Pendleton checks in with employees as they work. He’s soft spoken, but Pendleton’s voice carries over the power tools—even while wearing a mask.

Whether it’s boat yard logistics or a simple hello, it’s clear he cares about these people. 

“When I was young, I watched my father run this business, and how he treated people—how he cared for his employees. It’s something I try to emulate,” he says. “No one wants to be treated like a cog in a wheel who is just here to get a particular thing done.”

That respect has earned the business a loyal crew. The average employment tenure for the yard’s 22 employees is about 15 years.

“A lot of people who I knew growing up are still around. Some of the employees who now work for me used to pick me up after school when I was a kid,” he recalls.

Pendleton, 37, took over day-to-day operations when he returned to the island in 2013, becoming the fourth consecutive Pendleton to run the business, which began as a livery stable. Under the second generation, Pendleton’s grandfather, the shop fixed cars, and when Gabe’s father took over, it became the yacht yard that it is today.

Pendleton Yacht Yard launches its boats into Ames Cove, an inlet near the southwest tip of Islesboro.
Photo: Benjamin Smith

Pendleton explains that while his father taught him how to be a responsible business owner, taking over the family business wasn’t something he planned. 

Growing up on the island, Pendleton absorbed the key values it instilled, such as the importance of community, but he also learned environmentalism, as taught by his teachers at the Islesboro Central School.

When he graduated high school in 2001, he decided to pursue his interests on the mainland. He studied at the University of Maine in Orono and in Spain, taught English in Costa Rica, worked at a ski resort in Colorado, and then applied for law school. He studied law at the University of Pittsburgh for three years where he helped draft the stormwater ordinance for the city.

He also got to spend a summer interning with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and after passing the bar, landed a job clerking for a court in Vermont. An opening at a law firm in Brunswick brought him back to Maine, and soon after his father asked if he wanted to come home and manage the yacht yard.

That’s when Pendleton and his soon-to-be wife, Chloe Joule, packed up and moved to Islesboro.

Pendleton explains that while his father taught him how to be a responsible business owner, taking over the family business wasn’t something he planned. 

Growing up on the island, Pendleton absorbed the key values it instilled, such as the importance of community, but he also learned environmentalism, as taught by his teachers at the Islesboro Central School.

When he graduated high school in 2001, he decided to pursue his interests on the mainland. He studied at the University of Maine in Orono and in Spain, taught English in Costa Rica, worked at a ski resort in Colorado, and then applied for law school. He studied law at the University of Pittsburgh for three years where he helped draft the stormwater ordinance for the city.

He also got to spend a summer interning with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and after passing the bar, landed a job clerking for a court in Vermont. An opening at a law firm in Brunswick brought him back to Maine, and soon after his father asked if he wanted to come home and manage the yacht yard.

That’s when Pendleton and his soon-to-be wife, Chloe Joule, packed up and moved to Islesboro.

The demanding nature of managing the yacht yard meant he couldn’t continue practicing law, but his preparation for that career was not wasted. The analytical, problem-solving skills, and ability to effectively communicate on paper proved invaluable to the life he took on as a born-again islander. He won a position on the select board and started applying his skills to guide not only the family business, but also his community.

The good news is that he enjoys complex projects.

“I love it. The organizational side of running things is a fun challenge for me,” he confesses. “Pendleton Yacht Yard has lots of moving parts—marine construction, working on engines, paint and varnish, hauling and launching boats, and everything has to line up just right.”

On top of that, Pendleton prioritizes running an environmentally sustainable operation. In 2017, he addressed the yacht yard’s carbon footprint in earnest by investing in a 40-kilowatt solar array and battery storage system which drastically reduces emissions and energy costs for the business. 

His commitment to environmentally sound approaches goes beyond the family business. In part due to Pendleton’s advocacy, photovoltaic arrays have appeared on the island’s school, community building, and transfer station.

Though he has strong feelings about such things, he says he has learned the value of building community support for projects, rather than proceeding fueled only by his own passion. He works to have the community understand the benefits of the projects the select board works on.

Pendleton helped advocate for the 46-kilowatt array that sits on top of Islesboro’s municipal building. It is composed of 155 solar panels, and annually, they reduce the town’s CO2 emissions by about 63,000 pounds.

“Having 51 percent of the island’s support is never our goal,” he says, and instead hopes for something closer to consensus.

Residents will stop by the yacht yard or flag him down in the store to talk about municipal projects. He passes those concerns to the others on the select board.

“One of the good things about local government is that you’re close to the issues,” he notes. “If the town’s taxes go up, that includes the select board’s taxes.”

Arch Gillies and Sandy Oliver served on the board with Pendleton, and both praise his contributions.

“Gabe is highly intelligent and listens carefully to all viewpoints,” Gillies said. “He is forward-looking and has leadership skills that qualify him for governmental responsibility at all levels.” Pendleton serves on the state Ferry Service Advisory Board, and “on behalf of Islesboro, Gabe organized and successfully led our town’s legal challenge to fare increases.”

Gillies adds: “And best of all, he is a friend to all—and always cheerful.”

Oliver highlights his legal training.

“He spotted stuff that the others and myself either never noticed or understood differently. Nothing like having a ‘not the town attorney’ right on the select board,” she said.

Oliver also notes the importance of Pendleton returning to the island and bringing his new family.

“It’s wonderful to have our young back in town and making a contribution. When Gabe returned to the island, he brought a fabulous contributor to our island life. Chloe’s work with Islesboro Island Trust has proved a great asset.”

She relates how when Pendleton had to bring his child to a board meeting, some asked if he were babysitting. “He corrected them and said, “No, it’s called parenting.’”

Pendleton credits the town’s effective management of COVID to a mutual trust among residents, year-round and seasonal. One innovation was organizing a network to consolidate errands and minimize trips to the mainland. Neighbors brought groceries to seasonal residents who were quarantining upon arrival.

Though some shy away from straddling the elected official and entrepreneur worlds, where a decision in one role can hurt the other, Pendleton believes this level of engagement suits him.

“By running a business and being involved in the town, I have an opportunity to do more about the issues I care about,” he says.

Pendleton believes that effective leaders bring everyone along. Sustaining his island community and the planet are driving forces, and it shows through his efforts, which include advocating for affordable island transportation, supporting the local preschool (which his two-and-a-half-year-old attends), and planning for affordable healthcare.

Jack Sullivan is a multi-media storyteller with the Island Institute. He lives in Rockland.


Building Boats in the Heart of Maine’s Boating Waters

Building Boats in the Heart of Maine’s Boating Waters

Brooklin Boat Yard has earned a reputation for classic
craftsmanship matched with modern technique

Story by Laurie Schreiber
Photos by Jack Sullivan

“It’s a pretty small club, wooden boatbuilders. Maine is one of the hot spots,” said Steve White, a celebrated member of the club who presides over Brooklin Boat Yard, founded in 1960 by his father, the admired boat designer and builder Joel White, and known for its finely wrought vessels and willingness to innovate.

Back in Joel White’s day, wooden boatbuilding meant plank-on-frame construction. Under Steve White, it’s evolved to modern epoxy cold-molded wood construction of designs that include his father’s and those of other sought-after naval architects.

Modern techniques though they be, the yard’s outlook remains grounded in a love for the craft.

“We want to be considered one of the best custom boatbuilders in the industry,” said White. “We’re able to tackle unique projects and come up with great solutions to the owner’s desires. A big part of it is working with customers and seeing their satisfaction.”

Tucked down a narrow lane on the shore overlooking Eggemoggin Reach, considered the heart of the best cruising grounds on Maine’s coast, Brooklin Boat Yard is nestled in a community of fewer than a thousand year-round residents. A sign on the main drag boasts the community is the “Boatbuilding Capital of the World”—a tribute to builders of yachts and workboats like Brooklin Boat Yard, Atlantic Boat Company, Brion Rieff Boat Builders, Hylan & Brown, Eric Dow Boat Shop, and North Brooklin Boats, as well as marinas, boat designers, sailmakers, mooring services, and marine photography.

The town has a robust artisan and small-lodging vibe, too. And the famous WoodenBoat Publications and School is just a hop down a winding lane to the salt-scented sea.

Steve White is a great raconteur who obviously enjoys the personalities and talent behind each of the yard’s highly customized boats, each a work of art different from the next.

His personable style may be rooted in the story-telling ways of his grandfather, the author, essayist, and literary stylist E.B. White, probably best known for his children’s book Charlotte’s Web. Certainly the location of the yard is due to the author. In the 1930s, E.B. White and his wife, the New Yorker fiction editor Katharine White, moved from New York City to a 

homestead in North Brooklin. The barn behind the house was the setting for the eminent spider. 

“I had no idea what a famous writer he was until I got to prep school,” said White. “I just knew him as Grandpa.”

Joel White was three when his parents moved to Maine. After graduating from college and service with the U.S. Army, Joel returned home and started working for Arno Day, who built lobsterboats for local fishermen on the site of a former fish packing plant. When Joel bought the business, his reputation blossomed as a designer, over the years, of more than 50 boats, everything from prams to sailing and motor yachts. One of his most notable designs was a sleek 76-foot long racing sloop named Wild Horses and referred to as a “spirit of tradition” yacht for its evocation of classic style combined with modern, cold-molded construction and systems.

Growing up, Steve White didn’t expect to build boats. His youth was a mix of prep school, boatyard work, clam-digging, skiing, college, a junior year in Switzerland, bartending, and working on tugboats in Louisiana.

“Finally I said, ‘Maybe Brooklin doesn’t look so bad,’” he recalled with a laugh.

In 1978, he returned to the yard, learning skills along the way and gradually receiving more control over day-to-day operations, leaving Joel to focus on design—his real passion. Steve introduced cold-molded construction, an evolution Joel embraced for its stronger, lighter structure and comfortable ride.

The yard launched its first major cold-molded yacht—a Swede 55 racing/cruising sloop named Vortex—in 1990 and grew in step with leading designers such as Sparkman & Stephens, Dieter Empacher, Alden Yacht Design, and Stephens Waring Yacht Design.

With over 100 boats built, a Frers 74 sailboat named Foggy, launched in 2015, was its most complex project so far. Commissioned by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the design incorporated his ornamental styling, including hundreds of unique daylights and sculptural titanium components. The process, painstaking and precise, created, essentially, a functional work of art designed to withstand the crash of wind and waves.

The largest build was Sonny III, a 91-footer designed by Bruce Johnson and Brooklin Boat Yard. The biggest challenge? Time: The customer was 93 and required the boat before he died.

“We were literally building the boat as we were designing it, trying to stay ahead,” White said.

Legend, a replica of Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, hovers above the water moments before its launch. The vessel, commissioned by Wheeler Yacht Co., is similar to its predecessor in shape and style, but it goes twice as
fast and has modern accommodations.

Most recently, the yard splashed Legend, a Wheeler 38 replica of Ernest Hemingway’s yacht Pilar, combining heirloom style with state-of-the-art technology. White had the pleasure of delivering the boat south—a perk of his position.

White’s vision for the business? Well, it’s no longer his vision alone—he sold the yard to his employees through an employee stock ownership plan. There’s much to celebrate in that, he said—great people and amazing skills, for starters.

“And many of them are younger people,” he continued. “For a time, I worried we wouldn’t get younger people to come into the business. But a number of them seem to be drawn to it. They love the process of creating a completed product that you can take sailing or motoring.”

White, now in his late 60s, expects to remain hands-on
at least until he’s 70. Spending winters in southern climes, “I’m sort of the ambassador for the yard,” he said. “I see
that continuing.”

For Brooklin, the yard occupies a special place. 

“The obvious piece is that it provides payroll for the people who work here, but it does more than that,” he said. “If people are proud of the work and enjoy being here, it’s a positive thing. And I really like the fact that my employees and their children spend time at the yard in the evenings and on weekends, enjoying their own boats and the water, and working on their own projects. It feels like an important contribution to the community.”

Island Journal contributor Laurie Schreiber is also a Mainebiz staff writer and has covered topics in Maine for more than 30 years.


Henri, Bellows, and Luks: The Ashcan School in Maine

Storm Tide, Robert Henri, 1903. Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art

Henri, Bellows, and Luks:
The Ashcan School in Maine

Painters found in our waters the realism they’d seen in cities

By Carl Little

At the end of the 19th century, something of a battle began in American art, between the academicians and a group of independent artists. The former, represented by the National Academy of Design in New York City, encouraged a rather genteel approach to painting: portraits, landscapes, and still lifes meant to please the public, but little else. Impressionism and academic realism ruled the aesthetic roost.      

The independents, led by the charismatic Robert Henri (pronounced hen-rye), for the most part rejected this decorous approach, in style and subject. Many of them painted boldly, inspired by Henri’s charge to make every brush stroke count. As he wrote in The Art Spirit (1923): “The mere brush stroke itself must speak… It is on the canvas and it tells its tale.” 

While they produced their share of society portraits and comely landscapes, these “individualists” also embraced the grittier side of everyday working-class city life: rag pickers and waifs, tenements and railyards, bars and boxing matches. Their choice of subject matter earned them the title “Ashcan School,” a label that started out as a reproach and ended up being something of a badge of honor. 

In many art-historical accounts of the Ashcan School, little mention is made of the work several of its members created in Maine. More significantly, rarely have historians delved into how that work connected to their unfiltered vision of the city. 

Henri was the first to venture north and east, visiting Boothbay Harbor and Monhegan in 1903. While drawn to the primal elements of the Maine coast—crashing waves and bold headlands—the artist also furthered his Ashcan School perspective. 

In Storm Tide, 1903, a figure stands by the open doorway of a shack on stilts, facing the onslaught of wind-driven waves. The simple shoreline structures are the Maine coast equivalent of the poor sections of New York; the woman shielding her face with her arm is kin to the figures in Ashcan School portraits of city residents living on the edge of indigence.     

Henri famously encouraged his students to visit Maine, and specifically Monhegan, and a number of artists heeded the call, including Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and George Bellows. The last-named is considered by some art historians to be a “second generation” Ashcan School painter as he came into the fold later on. That he belongs in their company is undeniable: From his famous boxing paintings to his images of the Lower East Side, Bellows cast an unsentimental eye on the big city. 

Portrait of Jacqueline Hudson, George Bellows, 1914. Oil on panel, 24½ x 24¾ inches
Collection of Monhegan Museum of Art & History, gift of Susan Bateson and Stephen S. Fuller in honor of Edward L. Deci, director of the museum 1984-2019

Like Henri, Bellows brought his Ashcan School sensibility to bear on some of his Maine paintings. For one, he wielded a swift and sure brush, fulfilling his teacher’s definition of the true artist as one who, in viewing the landscape, “renders it upon his canvas as a living thing.”

Bellows also embraced the working waterfront, paying tribute to the fishermen he found on Monhegan in such iconic canvases as The Big Dory (1913). His paintings of the wharves on Matinicus and Criehaven and of ships and docks being built in Camden document their unruly glory. As the painter stated in 1917, “It seems to me that an artist must be a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator.” 

Bellows’ portrait of the four-year-old Jacqueline Hudson, thought to have been painted in the Monhegan home of her father, artist Eric Hudson, displays that wonderful empathy found in so many Ashcan School images of city children. Acquired last year by the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, the painting shows the smiling red-haired girl in a brown coat and out-sized beret, as ragamuffin as any street urchin.

The Fish Wharf, Matinicus Island, George Bellows, 1916
Farnsworth Art Museum 

Of the Ashcan School painters who came to Maine, George Luks is the most overlooked: He does not appear in any historical survey, including the landmark Maine and its Role in American Art, 1740-1963. While it’s true he apparently spent only part of the summer of 1922 in the state, considering his exceptional production while in residence, the omission is somewhat remarkable.

Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1867, Luks developed a humanist outlook through his family’s interactions with coal miners. He moved to Philadelphia where he met and came under the sway of Henri. As art historian Judith O’Toole has noted, Luks was “profoundly influenced” by his mentor’s philosophy, “especially his directive to paint ordinary life and shun the conventional subjects of the genteel tradition.” He also followed Henri’s demand “to execute a painting quickly and with great speed.”

Upon settling in New York City, Luks established himself as an important independent painter. He wandered poor neighborhoods making sketches that later became empathetic images of street life. His acclaimed The Spielers, 1905, a portrait of two immigrant children dancing, epitomizes what O’Toole calls his “ruthless realism.”    

In 1919, Luks traveled to Nova Scotia. He turned to watercolor to capture the northern landscape, which included lively renderings of rivers and trout-fishing around Lake Rossignol, a reservoir in the southwestern part of the province. These brilliant paintings, some of which led to oils, inspired critics to signal a revival of his reputation and a further advancement toward the status of old master.

The year 1922 proved to be somewhat tumultuous. Luks contracted a severe illness, perhaps related to his drinking, that sent him to a sanitorium. Fortunately for him, his friend and patron, socialite and sculptor Margaret Sargent, invited him to stay in her Boston mansion.   

That summer Luks visited Maine. In an essay for a Luks retrospective at the Sordoni Art Gallery in 1987, art historian Stanley Cuba recounts how the painter settled in “a little old farmhouse” on Pond Cove in Cape Elizabeth. According to Cuba, Luks had first seen the area when taking the ferry to Nova Scotia from Portland three years earlier.

Luks’s reaction to the Maine coast expresses the kind of enthusiasm found in the letters and writings of Henri, Bellows, Kent, and others upon their introduction to this northern realm. In an article titled “George Luks, Noted Artist and Philosopher, Says Maine Leads Them All in Scenery” written by Emma Moseley for the Portland Evening Express, the painter waxed lyric about his surroundings:

Talk about the chalk cliffs of Cornish, talk about the “wonderful scenery” anywhere in Europe, Maine has it over them. Here you have that wonderful gray that is found only in such a climate as that of Maine and your rocks and shores are so rugged and bold they make other rocks and shores seem pretty and puny in comparison; and your characters, there are real American types here, types that you find nowhere else… I intend to paint them in all their strength and ruggedness, and I shall be happy as a king for I shall find plenty of material here with which I can work. 

And he did: In a letter dated Sept. 3, 1922, to one of his former students, Mildred Williams, Luks reports returning from Maine with 15 canvases. Several of his paintings feature fishermen and farmers in and around Cape Elizabeth.

In Henry Dyer, Cape Elizabeth, the farmer of the title, seated on a riding cultivator, guides his horses across a field overlooking the sea. Interesting to note that the Dyer family farm is part of an agricultural conservation easement recently arranged by Maine Farmland Trust and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust that ensures the property will remain available for agriculture in perpetuity. According to the Portland Press Herald, the Maxwell Farm-Dyer Field is “the largest, permanently preserved farm parcel closest to Portland.”  

In both Henry Dyer, Cape Elizabeth, and Hannaford’s Cove, Cape Elizabeth, Two Lights can be seen in the distance. In the latter painting, the lighthouse, which would later become the subject of iconic paintings by Edward Hopper and Andrew Winter, provides the backdrop for two fishermen hauling their boat up onto the rocky beach, their “strength and ruggedness” on full display.

Henry Dyer, Cape Elizabeth, George Luks, 1922

What is perhaps Luks’s greatest Maine painting is a view of Poverty Hump, a small wave-beaten outpost in the Muscle Ridge Shoals off of South Thomaston. Two men have landed a boat on bare ledge. While one of them unloads the boat, the other makes his way up the rocky terrain carrying something over his shoulder, headed for three shacks and a ragged orange pennant blowing in the wind, perhaps a makeshift storm warning flag or marker to keep passing ships from hitting the island. 

The painting is executed with gusto, the brush strokes deployed with brilliant force and vitality. The scene is dramatic, in setting and color scheme, even as it records an episode of Maine coast life.

Ben Fuller, Penobscot Marine Museum curator, monitors this section of the coast for the Maine Island Trail Association and believes the painting depicts some ledges/bars “just south of Dix [Island] or possibly one of the rocks in the Clam ledges.” He further notes: “If it is where I think it is, you are seeing the mainland, the Camden Hills, in the background to the left of the breaking wave. With any kind of southerly blowing up the channel, you would get breaking waves there.” 

The diminutive “hump” doesn’t appear in Charles McLane’s Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, but in his description of the Muscle Ridge islands, he notes that several served as seasonal residences for local fishermen around this time. Fuller feels that with “decent connections to Rockland, it would not have been hard for an artist to get into the Muscle Ridge and find a spot to bunk for a bit.” 

An authority on Maine boats, Fuller believes the craft in the painting might be a flat bottom skiff. “The sheer seems a little exaggerated towards the bow,” he explains, and “given license it looks like the boat’s transom is too wide for it to be some kind of dory.” Such small craft, he notes, would be found around weirs, of which there were a number in the area at the time Luks visited. He suspects the men are resupplying the shacks.

“As I recall, there are still a few huts or camps like this on at least one of the Clam islands south of Dix.”

Poverty Hump, Maine, George Luks, ca. 1922. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches 

Luks’s Maine paintings were shown at the Kraushaar Gallery in New York City in October 1922 and received positive critical notice. A reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Mr. Luks, like other artists, has marveled at the conflict of the giant ledges valiantly withstanding the onslaughts of the sea, but he has, unlike the majority of his confreres, transferred to his canvases the sense of the contrasting forces and the grandeur of these Titans.” The critic also remarked on his colors, “the beautiful, pale vermillion dory being dragged ashore or the burnt-sienna seaweed clinging to the exposed rocks.” 

Like Bellows and Henri, Luks managed to make the move from urban to rural realist. In search of subject matter that reflected the truth of life in America, these Ashcan School painters found a major muse in Maine.      

Carl Little’s books include Edward Hopper’s New England, The Art of Maine in Winter, and Paintings of Portland, co-authored with his brother David. He has published monographs on a number of Maine artists, including Philip Barter, Dahlov Ipcar, Eric Hopkins and Beverly Hallam. His articles appear in Art New England, The Working Waterfront and Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors. He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island. 


Boosting our Small Businesses

Boosting our Small Businesses

Island Institute’s Tom Glenn Community Impact Fund
helped entrepreneurs survive pandemic

By Stephanie Bouchard

When the pandemic shut down the state in March of last year, the impact on small businesses was immediate. The Island Institute knew it had to offer expanded support.

For many years, the Institute has offered a professional development grant that helped small business owners get training—things like Quickbooks and certification classes—that would help them improve their business. But with the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, the Institute’s small business team reinvented the Tom Glenn Community Impact Fund professional development grants into business resilience grants. 

The reformulated grants of up to $1,500 give small businesses the opportunity to do something that helps their businesses shift and, hopefully, survive, the pressures placed on them by the pandemic, said Craig Olson of the Island Institute.

“The whole idea is that we want to really put in what we considered impact capital,” he said.

And an impact is indeed what the Island Institute achieved, and, as you will see from some of the stories below, that impact reached beyond the direct benefit to the 95 small businesses that received grants directly.

Cranberry Oysters
Great Cranberry Island

Lauren and Josh Gray run Cranberry Oysters on a five-acre oyster farm in a small inlet known as The Pool on Great Cranberry Island. Lauren does all her harvesting and makes deliveries from her boat.

“I literally just walk up a dock, drop them off to a restaurant,” she said.

But when the pandemic hit and the state put restrictions on incoming travelers, she had to get ready to meet a shift in sales and to possibly distribute her own product directly to customers. To do that, she needed a license to become a wholesale seafood distributor.

She applied for the Island Institute’s business resilience grant and was approved within a week. She got her grant money immediately, and signed up for the licensing course, which she was able to take online.

She now is HACCP-certified (hazard analysis and critical control points), the first step in the process to begin shipping her product directly and to launch her business into new territory. Plans are in the works to construct a land-based facility from where she can make shipments.

“The goal is to just become more independent and I think that’s definitely where I’m headed next,” she said.

Dulse and Rugosa
Sullivan

After the shutdown began last spring, Claire Weinberg and her daughter, Carley, co-owners of Dulse and Rugosa, a line of handmade organic hair and skincare products, knew they had to enhance their website to pivot away from selling their products from their storefront and from the many markets they usually attended and move to a wholesale business they could operate from their website. 

They applied for a business resilience grant to pay for a photographer who could take photos of their products so they’d have a professional presentation on their website.

“I wouldn’t have personally spent money on a photographer,” Claire Weinberg said, even though a professional presentation is crucial to web-based business. 

Having the grant to pay for a professional photographer was a big boost, she said.

“Our website was huge in keeping us solvent,” she said.
And she paid the grant forward by hiring a local photographer.

ProjectEmmersive
Biddeford

In February 2020, Faye Warner achieved a dream: She signed a lease on a gallery space where artists would use three of the five senses to create an immersive exhibition. The week after opening weekend, she had to close down because of the pandemic. 

After the state allowed businesses to reopen, people were too nervous to be in the small exhibition space, and without anyone coming into the gallery and paying a suggested donation of $10 for entry into the exhibit, Warner didn’t know how her newly-opened business would be able to continue.

A business resilience grant from the Island Institute paid for the equipment to make 360-degree movies of the exhibits and allowed Warner to create an online portal where people can make a donation online and experience the exhibit via virtual reality. 

“The Island Institute has been incredible and so influential in helping our business survive,” she said. Warner had the grant money in hand within a week of applying.

“If it weren’t for this grant,” she said, “I think we would’ve probably had to give up on our dreams because we couldn’t afford to do the online portal with all the technology.” 

Instead of giving up on her dream, now she is looking forward to achieving her five-year plan of being able to employ multiple artists full-time and supporting a creative workforce here in Maine.

Maine Magic Mud
Vinalhaven 

Will Drury always wanted to start his own business.

“I was a broke college student and didn’t have the money to invest in a lot of things,” he said, “but I decided that I could probably get my hands on some mud and that’s how it happened.”

The mud in question comes from the mud flats of Vinalhaven and it is the basis of the skin care product line he created after using some of it on the scaly and peeling skin of his hands that resulted from lobstering.  

Drury received a business resilience grant to enroll in an online course from Columbia University to teach him online marketing skills in order to build his business online, but what he’s found as valuable as the financial support has been working with the small business team at the Institute. Being an island-based business, he said, “it’s nice to have an organization to work with that knows and has experience in exactly the issues that you are experiencing.”

Chebeague Lobster Co.
Chebeague Island

There are lots of lobstermen on Chebeague Island, but no retail outlet where you could stop in on a summer evening and hand over a credit card to buy a dozen lobsters. So in June of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Christopher Loder, with the help of his three kids (ages 10, 12, and 13), launched a new seasonal business on the island they call home. 

He made arrangements with two local lobstermen to be suppliers for the retail customer business on the island. To get his business going, he needed a lobster tank. And that’s where the Island Institute’s grant came in, providing the funds to purchase a tank, scales, 100 buckets, pint glasses, a point-of-sale solution, and to set up a website.

“The timing of the money is really important when starting a business,” he said. The Island Institute’s grant made his new business venture possible, he said. “The grant gave us the confidence to take the risk to create and launch something for ourselves, and this directly benefitted two other island families—that’s the real value here.”

Loder plans on reopening next summer, and already has expansion plans.

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor living on the coast of Maine. Find her at stephaniebouchard.net.


Penobscot Bay—Churning Waters, Changing Tide

Penobscot Bay—Churning Waters, Changing Tide

Abundance and exploitation, culturally divided, and rich with opportunity

By Tom Groening

It’s the largest estuary on Maine’s 3,500-mile-long coast, lying at the mouth of the storied river and watershed that bear its name, which in turn was taken from the native people who even today advocate for its ecological health. 

More than 400 years ago, Penobscot Bay drew European fishing boats which harvested its plentiful cod for mouths back home. The history of resource extraction continued, from finfish to lumber to granite to lobster.

Boatbuilders and fishing fleets have dropped anchor at its many coves and natural harbors, and recreational boaters as famous as Walter Cronkite and Ted Kennedy have said it offers the world’s best sailing. Its cultural characteristics range from the tourism-focused Rockland and Camden on its western shore, to an industrial port at Searsport and a long-time paper mill, recently closed, at Bucksport at the top of the bay, to the world’s largest lobster-landing port at Stonington on its eastern edge.

And Penobscot Bay is home to several of our year-round island communities—Isle au Haut, Islesboro, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Monhegan, and Matinicus.

The bay’s story begins with its physical characteristics, visible on a map, but also includes forces below the surface of its waters. It is a story of remarkable abundance, of exploitation, and of disruption. And even as global forces buffet its communities with warming waters and rising seas, the next chapter may be marked by opportunity.

The biological abundance can be attributed to Penobscot Bay’s configuration, and to the waters that feed it, both freshwater from the north and saltwater from the south. In short, the bay is nothing like a stagnant pond.

The Penobscot River is New England’s second largest (after the Connecticut), and the watershed drains nearly one-third of Maine—some 8,750-square miles, according to NOAA. Penobscot Bay is the second largest in the Gulf of Maine after the Bay of Fundy.

Nutrients from the river feed the bay, and the 11 diadromous, or sea-run, fish that return to and leave the Penobscot River provide food for other species.

A circulatory pattern also contributes to the abundance. The Gulf of Maine Gyre carries water westward from the open ocean to the lower part of the bay near Matinicus, and when it meets a rising tide, a strong “drift” up the western side of the bay results. Fourteen-mile-long Islesboro divides the upper bay west and east which creates a clockwise circulation around the island, if the top of the clock face is at Searsport.

Scientists and keen on-the-water observers like Bob Steneck, Ted Ames, and Robin Alden refer to the various oceanographic phenomena as the “well-mixed eastern Maine coastal current.”

Steneck, a professor and researcher at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, shows a color-shaded map of the Gulf of Maine in his presentations on the region, with green tones corresponding to warmer waters, blue for cooler. A sharp delineation between the two colors extends south into the gulf from the line of Penobscot Bay’s western shore.

“There’s a kind of wall right here,” he says, gesturing to the line. “This is a transition zone. It’s a pretty significant transition zone, oceanographically,” and it affects animal and plant life. “It’s a biogeographic shift that happens right at Penobscot Bay.” Marine species are split at that line, he says.

Ames, a respected observer of the bay whose expertise comes from a science and research background, along with fishing experience and a family heritage, says that complex current “tends to trap critters.”

“It’s a place of huge complexity,” says Alden, who with her husband Ames founded the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and who is a former state marine resources commissioner. “You think of a bay as being the place where a river opens out, but the oceanographic work that’s been done shows there’s a lot more going on. There are several circulatory patterns.”

One kind of critter important to the bay is plankton, Alden says, and it gets dumped there in great numbers. Ames and Alden go deeper in explaining the abundance.

Ted Ames and Robin Alden

“Initially, it had extensive eel grass areas,” he says, “extensive nursery habitat. It had not only huge spawning areas for prey species like herring, it also had the whole productivity of the Penobscot River and the diadromous species that come out of there as juveniles every year. Just an abundance of prey.”

Before dams were built on the river, even more fish were in the mix, Alden notes.

How good was the fishing? Steneck cites the English explorer James Rosier, who wrote about “sailing up the Penobscot” in 1605 and recorded seeing “great cods and haddocks, which gave us a taste of the great plenty of fish … wheresoever we went upon the coast.”

Steneck says declines in landings began in the river and estuary in the 1840s, followed by declines down the bay through the 1880s, all due to overfishing. Perhaps surprisingly, mackerel was the most valuable species harvested from Penobscot Bay in 1880, amounting to about 40 percent of the catch.

“Now, it’s 92 percent lobster. We’ve fundamentally shifted the ecosystem to lobster,” he said. Few cod to eat the larval lobster, and more seals may mean more juvenile cod are consumed, removing that predation.

Ames remembers his father telling him about his early years fishing.

“He had always said, ‘We did between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds a day.’ And they pursued cod all the way up to Stockton Springs. That’s incredible.” That abundance continued. “When I started fishing—early 1960s—the first few years I went, we handlined. We averaged 750 pounds of fish per man per day.”

Paul Anderson
Courtesy: Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries

Ames and his brother then began tub trawling, fishing five tubs, “and we averaged 1,000 pounds of dressed hake a tub. We did that well until 1966, ’67, when gill netting began. Fishermen were going out with ten nets and filling their boats.”

And that’s when Penobscot Bay’s story evolved from abundance to exploitation. Where did regulation go awry?

Alden, the former marine commissioner, has a ready answer: “Not recognizing that control of technology is absolutely essential. As a fisherman told me years ago, ‘We declared war on fish and we won.’”

Paul Anderson, executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, was working for Alden at the Department of Marine Resources back in the 1980s and remembers accompanying her to a meeting with fishermen in Rockland.

“I remember one fisherman getting up there and saying, ‘Jesus Christ, when we was fishing hard here with my dad and uncle, we’d go out in the bay off here and we’d fill the boat to the gunnels with redfish and be back before noon. I want to know where those goddamn fish are!’ And my reaction was, ‘Well, maybe you should have left a few of them.’”

Anderson agrees with Alden on the role of technology, with “new gear that was too efficient for the fishery” taking its toll. “There was no sense of nurseries, there was no sense of the history and that you’ve got to take care of these populations.”

A central principle for the MCCF is that species must be managed granularly, almost to the point of allowing harvesting in one cove and not in another.

“Fish go to specific places for specific reasons in their life cycle,” Alden notes. “If you take them at the wrong time in their life cycle, you can wipe them out.”

Ames remembers a productive spawning ground for herring near Matinicus, now gone. “The enormous productivity has disappeared. Now we’re in lobster city.”

Vinalhaven’s working waterfront has one of the largest lobster landings in Maine, bringing in 7.6 percent of the state’s product in 2019.

If lobster city had a mayor, it might be Dave Cousens. Cousens served as president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board for 27 years (and also serves on the Island Institute’s board of trustees). He started fishing off South Thomaston in 1967 at age 10 and is still at it.

Very much a citizen scientist, Cousens has kept careful records of water temperature, signs of the molt, and landings for those many years.

“I started that in 1980,” he says of marking the day on the calendar when shedders showed up in his traps. “It was consistent until 1991, ’92.” Shedders would show up within two days on the calendar for most of the 20th century, he believes, right around July 20.

“When we got to ’92, things started going haywire. The temperature here has increased by 4-5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 40 years. Which is huge.”

When Cousens started fishing, there was more than lobster.

“It’s changed. It used to be lots of fish,” with haddock, halibut, redfish, and cod showing up in his traps. No more. The lobster larvae survival rate was about 1 percent, now it’s 2 percent to 2-1/2 percent, he says.

Landings increased in the 1990s to 35-40 million pounds, and then spiked up to 130 million pounds in 2012. And water temperatures, which only hit the high 50s in the 1980s, began creeping into the low 60s by the Fourth of July in the 1990s.

“By the 2000s, it was consistently in the 60s,” right through mid-September, and now at that level through mid-October, “which is crazy.”

Dave Cousens

Penobscot Bay is more than a fish tank. It is rimmed by three counties, with two county seats on its shore. Yet while its many towns describe themselves as being on this singular bay, the region doesn’t see itself as a whole. And the region is shifting, west and east.

“In my working time, starting in the early ‘70s,” says Alden, who was then launching and operating Commercial Fisheries News, “I’ve seen the western side of the bay become almost suburban. In the ‘70s, I was in Camden all the time, talking to fishermen,” a scenario that seems unlikely today.

Access to the working waterfront seems to be holding steady, says Anderson, but that could change fast. Affordable housing has diminished, if not disappeared, in shorefront towns. Cousens says if not for his land holdings, in the family for 200 years, his children wouldn’t have homes near the shore.

Anderson describes the effort made to form the Penobscot Bay Network.

“We had several conferences. Sears Island was a galvanizing issue at the time, the possibility of that developing into a shipping port. As we did this, we tried to tell Castine and Belfast that they share this watershed. Or knock at the door of businesses and leaders in Bucksport, and say, ‘You guys share this wonderful, challenging place with Port Clyde and Castine and the islands in between.We couldn’t get anyone’s interest, try as we might.”

Alden argued for establishing a Penobscot baykeeper, to no avail, yet she understands that “time and distance issues” tend to keep west and east disconnected.

“I’ve been really outspoken about this over the years,” she says. “When you have a Penobscot Bay meeting, where do you have it? On the west side of the bay. Increasingly, fishing is not the mainstream of many of these towns. These are fundamental changes.”

And more changes loom. An array of floating wind turbines is in the works for the southern reaches of the bay, a plan strongly opposed by many in the lobster fishery.

Alden and Ames have slightly different takes on the matter.

Yes, climate change is a threat, she acknowledges, and renewables are part of the fix, but the scale is “classic industrialization. ‘Oh, there’s a place, there’s nothing happening there. We’ll put our oil refinery there.’”

Ames characterizes it as “tricky stuff,” and believes “fishermen do have credible concerns,” the greatest of which may be the vibrations and frequencies the turbines create.

Anderson sees the turbines as inevitable.

“It’s going to happen in some way, shape, or form, so it’s important the working waterfront be there at the table to influence it in some way. I think the industry has a lot to share in terms of knowledge, both in site selection and how something like that can be managed in the long term.”

An often-overlooked characteristic of Penobscot Bay is its shipping port at Mack Point in Searsport—two docks, liquid and dry—and an oil terminal at Bucksport. David Gelinas, president of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association, is one of several trained pilots who board ships off Matinicus and guide them up the bay.

“I have been piloting the bay for 29 years now,” he says, and he has witnessed a change in cargoes, though most are still petroleum products—gasoline, diesel, home-heating oil, asphalt, kerosene, No. 6 oil, and jet fuel.

Gelinas has noticed a decline in the heavy No. 6 oil coinciding with the natural gas pipeline coming into Maine from Canada.

“Heating oil also seems to be on a decline, as consumers switch to heat pumps,” along with propane and natural gas.

New cargoes include kaolin clay slurry—used in papermaking—from Brazil, and wind turbine parts. “Recently, we began receiving shipments of wood pulp from northern Europe,” and scrap metal began being exported.

“A significant amount of cement is still exported by barge from Rockland,” he adds.

Gelinas also asserts that in his time, moving oil on the bay has become much safer, with double-hulled tankers going from concept to the norm. Extensive training and digital navigation equipment also are part of the equation.

When—or if—floating wind turbines are moored in the bay, ship traffic may increase, observes MCCF’s Anderson. Aquaculture, too, may be a new growth marine industry. But in the last hundred years, Penobscot Bay has never been a sleepy backwater. It’s just the activities that change.

Ames remembers his grandfather, a lighthouse keeper. “He was stationed on Saddleback Light,” between Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut. “He’d say, ‘In the ‘20s, it wasn’t unusual to have a hundred sails in sight during a given day.’ But he dissed them by saying, ‘But they were only fishermen.’”

Tom Groening is editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront. He lives in Belfast.


Quahog fishermen at work

Changing Fisheries on Narragansett Bay

Quahoggers rake in their catch while fishing in
Narragansett Bay near Warwick, R.I.
Photo: David Wells / Alamy Stock

Changing Fisheries on Narragansett Bay

Cleaner waters, but fishing culture and fish species in flux

By Ari Snider

There’s a small-state joke in northern Rhode Island that goes like this: If you’re headed to South County, you better pack a lunch for the road. Of course, South County is only about a 50-minute drive from Providence, but to be fair, it’s pretty much as far as you can go without leaving the Ocean State. 

Whether or not you bring your lunch pail, Fred Mattera hopes you at least consider buying dinner in South County. 

“What we’re trying to do is get you to buy a whole fish,” he said. “Take it home—it’s cheaper for you—and filet it.”

Mattera is executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, and selling more fish locally is one of his top priorities.

Mattera is also a lifelong commercial fisherman, and only recently hung up his captain’s hat. He got his start in the early 1970s on day boats—wooden vessels that worked Narragansett Bay and coastal waters. Over the years, the fleet has transitioned to larger vessels and offshore grounds.

These days, “you can probably count on this hand how many boats actively fish in the bay,” Mattera said, holding up one hand on a Zoom call. “It’s unfortunate.” 

That doesn’t mean the bay is bereft of commercial fishermen—far from it. Hundreds of shellfishermen continue to harvest mussels, whelks, quahogs, and other mollusks from small boats, carrying on an age-old practice. Aquaculture, mainly in the form of oyster farms, has emerged more recently as a major player in the aquatic economy alongside wild harvesters.

Around the time that Mattera was getting his sea legs on the day boat fleet, farther up the bay Mike McGiveney was making his first investments in quahog gear. 

“I bought my first boat when I was 12, with my paper route money,” said McGiveney, who is now president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association. By the time he graduated from the University of Rhode Island, he was a full-time quahogger.

“I really haven’t done anything else for the last 40 years,” he said with a laugh.

Quahogs are a type of hardshell clam, and figure prominently in Rhode Island’s culinary history. Less flashy than calamari—the state has claimed the title of “calamari capital,” thanks to massive squid harvests in recent years—the humble bivalve is nevertheless a mainstay for shellfishermen. Even as other species go through cycles of abundance and decline, “quahogs have always been here,” McGiveney said.

Less steady is interest in shellfishing as a job, and a current challenge for the industry is slow recruitment. “Unfortunately, the preponderance of the shellfishermen are older guys, like me,” McGiveney said.

But there’s something on the horizon that he’s hoping will generate a little more buzz around the industry, perhaps enticing some younger would-be shellfishermen to pick up a rake and jump aboard: New fishing grounds are opening up in the Providence River, the northernmost arm of the bay, grounds that haven’t been harvested in over 70 years. 

The expanded territory is a direct result of longstanding efforts to clean up the bay, especially the northern reaches which are closest to Providence.

Jonathan Stone of Save the Bay

When I landed in Providence as an undergrad at Brown University in 2014, I was warned that anyone who fell into the harbor would be whisked directly to the hospital, so poisonous was the water. In hindsight, I think this was likely a fictionalized snippet of urban lore used to scare we first-year students, but when Jonathan Stone was at Brown, several decades earlier, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to chance it either way.

“It was just a foul place,” said Stone. As a member of the crew team in the late 1970s, he would know. “At that time there was raw sewage, regularly, in the water,” he remembers.

Stone is now executive director of Save the Bay, an environmental advocacy group dedicated to restoring and protecting Rhode Island’s central geographic feature—no small task. 

Narragansett Bay has taken a beating ever since the industrial revolution first cranked into gear in Pawtucket, just upriver. From the textile industry to jewelry manufacturing, the bay was on the wrong end of outflow pipes discharging dyes, chemicals, or toxic metals for well over 150 years.

Then there was the problem of untreated wastewater. In addition to being gross, raw sewage overloaded the bay with nitrogen, causing algal blooms and, in turn, massive fish kills.

An exceptionally large die-off occurred in 2003, in an area where McGiveney and others harvest shellfish, and it made front page news. Save the Bay took a leading role in getting a law passed to rein in wastewater treatment plants, and in the last 17 years Stone says nitrogen loading into the bay from those plants has been cut in half.

The cleanup of the bay has been so successful that some wonder if it’s having unintended consequences. Even as new portions of the upper bay are now clean enough to harvest quahogs, McGiveney says he’s seen shellfish bed productivity decline in the lower bay, which he thinks could be a result of less organic matter in the water. 

“Really it’s like Goldilocks,” he said, referring to levels of nitrogen and other nutrients. “You don’t know how much is too much, and how much is too little.”

To Anna Mercer, chief of the Cooperative Research Branch at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the debate over nutrient levels is a direct consequence of humans trying to manage a complex marine ecosystem for multiple uses.

“We knew that the bay was polluted by wastewater, but we don’t know what the ‘right’ level of productivity is,” she wrote in an email. “Although it looks ‘clean’, it is not supporting the abundance and diversity of marine life that it once did.”

However the debate over nutrient levels unfolds, climate change is the 800-pound marine mammal in the room.

Warming waters have already altered the species composition of the bay, a shift so significant that Mercer said “some have classified [it] as kind of a regime shift.”

Mercer, who has a long history of working with fishermen to study commercial fisheries in southern New England, brings up the example of winter flounder, which used to spawn in abundance in the bay.

“But as the water has warmed,” she said, “Narragansett Bay is now nearly inhospitable to winter flounder of different life stages.” The lobster fishery is also on the decline, reflecting a regional trend as the crustaceans shift northward toward cooler waters.

A quahogger pulls up a rake full of quahogs near Greenwich Cove.
Photo: Bob Breidenbach / USA Today Network

Mercer stresses that isolating climate change as a unique variable is not easy. “Trying to identify specifically a cause and effect,” she said, “of ‘this is happening because of a changing climate’ is actually really difficult to do.” That means there are a lot of unresolved questions floating around.

From the 10,000-foot view, though, the broader impacts of climate change come into clearer focus: waters are warming, species distribution and abundance are changing, and fishermen are trying to keep up.

Mercer says that is not necessarily all bad. “Change is forcing the industry to adapt, which is something that they’ve always been good at,” she said. Lobstermen are targeting Jonah crab, and boom years in the squid fishery have more than made up for the loss of winter flounder, at least from an economic perspective.

“I do believe, and I think the science supports, that we can continue to have sustainable and prosperous fisheries,” Mercer added. “Even if it’s going to look different in the years to come.”

So while it’s always advisable to pack a lunch when you’re headed to South County, you might also want to keep an open mind about what kind of fish you’ll bring home for dinner.

 

Ari Snider is a journalist from Belfast. He’s worked most recently for public radio stations in West Texas and Southeast Alaska.


two geese take flight near an island

All eyes on the Chesapeake

All eyes on the Chesapeake

Estuary’s recovery faces political and legal challenges

By Jeremy Cox

The Chesapeake Bay’s past is the stuff of legend: Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith (well, actually John Rolfe), the rockets’ red glare and the anthem it inspired, the Monitor and the Merrimack, oyster pirates and the “Oyster Navy.”

The future, though, is shaping up to be the stuff of hard science: nitrogen and phosphorus, the Watershed Model and the SPARROW model, secchi disks and conductivity sensors, stock assessments and consensus-based fishery management plans.

The Chesapeake is the subject of one of the longest-running and most complex environmental restoration efforts in history. Over the past five decades, the region has evolved into one of the world’s premier testing grounds for water-quality monitoring methods, stormwater runoff fixes, and a whole host of other ecological practices. 

If that were the end of the story, the bay might regain its health after all. But it’s not.

The cleanup will have to navigate through politics, legal turmoil, and funding disputes. Therein lies the biggest test of all: whether the cooperation that has largely marked the recovery of America’s largest estuary remains steadfast or fractures apart.

“To me, all eyes are on the Chesapeake,” said Ann Swanson, longtime executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “With the state brain trusts and strong federal involvement, if they can’t do it, who can?”

The Bay Commission is an embodiment of that cooperative spirit—an advisory board largely consisting of state lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The commission provides a platform for the states to cultivate collective policy, said Swanson, who has led the board for 33 of its 41 years.

Ann Swanson
Photo: Dave Harp

“If we say we want a ban on firefighting foam, our members in each of the states can each file legislation,” she added. “They don’t have to lobby someone else.”

From the Great Lakes to south Florida’s Everglades, aquatic ecosystems are grappling with a crisis of overabundance. Too much fertilizer spread on farm fields and suburban lawns. Too much silt unloosed by poorly managed construction sites and cropland left uncovered during the winter. Too much population growth transforming wetlands and forests —nature’s pollution filters—into subdivisions and 7-Elevens.

Only it’s worse for the Chesapeake. The bay’s watershed measures about 64,000 square miles. A drop of water can fall as far north as Cooperstown, N.Y., as far west as West Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and as far south as Virginia Beach, Virg., and eventually trickle into the bay. The bay itself, though, only covers about 4,500 square miles of surface. That 14-1 land-to-water ratio is like an area the size of Missouri draining into Connecticut. Because of the Chesapeake’s relative shallowness and gentle tides, whatever ends up in its waters tends to stay there for at least six months before flushing out to sea.

So, what happens on the land, marine scientists say, profoundly influences the bay’s water quality.

And it has. Tidal waves of nutrients trigger annual blooms of algae that suck up oxygen as they die off. In deeper parts of the bay, this creates “dead zones,” where creatures large and microscopic perish unless they’re able to flee. Meanwhile, sediment injections turn the water from clear to murky, blocking sunlight from reaching the underwater grasses that are the nurseries for many fish species.

For much of the 20th century, the bay’s decline was so gradual that the alarm bells that some scientists had begun to ring went unheeded. A long drought in the mid-Atlantic through much of the 1960s helped keep the pollution under wraps. When that noxious buildup was finally unleashed in 1972 by Tropical Storm Agnes, the results were ecologically catastrophic. To this day, the bay has yet to fully recover from the storm’s effects.

But those storm clouds contained a silver lining. Shocked into action, Congress approved a five-year, $27 million study to pinpoint what was wrong with the bay. Its publication in the early ‘80s led to the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal and multi-state partnership to oversee its restoration.

Aerial photo of farm fields and a river.

Chestertown, Md. is home to a variety of farms, from dairy to vegetables. The runoff from these fields goes into the Chester River which empties into Chesapeake Bay.

For many years, the restoration was plagued by inadequate funding and weak oversight. There were key improvements in wastewater discharges and a significant reduction in nitrogen from cleaner air quality. But progress was painfully slow. So, in 2010, the partners finally agreed to a strict “pollution diet,” which called for steep reductions in nutrient and sediment.

The agreement created federal “backstops” to prod laggard states forward. And it set a 2025 deadline for all projects and regulations to be put in place.

The Bay Program has already fended off one major attempt to undermine its efforts. Several agricultural trade associations and the National Association of Home Builders filed a lawsuit just weeks after the 2010 agreement was announced, claiming that the EPA overstepped its authority. They were later joined by attorneys general from 21 states (notably, only one was based in the watershed). The Third Circuit in Philadelphia upheld the agreement in 2015, and the Supreme Court allowed that decision to stand when it declined to hear the case the following year. 

The partnership worked on the restoration throughout the legal battle and hasn’t let up since it ended.

Since 2015, state and federal spending on the cleanup has averaged about $1.7 billion per year.

Across the region, many farmers plant “cover crops” to prevent topsoil from washing away during the winter. Ranchers are fencing off streams to stop cattle from defecating directly in the water. Counties and cities are transforming ditches into winding streams to deflect nutrients and sediment off their journeys to the bay. Community programs encourage homeowners to install rain barrels on their downspouts to reduce stormwater runoff during peak flows. Chicken manure, once spread as fertilizer on adjoining corn and soybean fields, is hauled to less-sensitive farming areas.

Since 2015, state and federal spending on the cleanup has averaged about $1.7 billion per year. That figure doesn’t account for local expenditures. 

That investment, however, has yielded little progress where it matters most: the ecosystem’s health. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the region’s leading environmental group, has been tracking the restoration’s progress since 1998, issuing a “State of the Bay” report every two years. The group’s scientists distill more than a dozen indicators into a single “index score” between 1 and 100, with 70 or above considered “saved.” 

The inaugural report more than 20 years ago gave the bay a score of 27. In the latest, published in January 2021, it received a 32.

“We’re still not close,” said Don Boesch, a marine scientist and former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The agricultural sector needs to make up the most ground to meet its pollution-reduction goals, he noted.

“We’ve required various practices that we think would have beneficial effects, and we’ve paid people to do things. But they weren’t very effective or they weren’t implemented appropriately.”

Don Boesch
Photo: Dave Harp

For years, downstream states have pointed to a lack of progress made by Pennsylvania and New York to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff. Last September, that frustration boiled over into a full-blown legal showdown. Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the EPA hasn’t adequately enforced pollution controls in the two northern states.

The 2025 cleanup goals were already unlikely to be met. The Chesapeake Bay’s long-term rebound now appears to hinge on whether the states that depend on its health can agree to continue riding in the same boat or abandon ship.

Jeremy Cox is a reporter for Bay Journal, a nonprofit publication that covers the environment of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Two ospreys in a nest over marsh grasses