Three fishermen make their way back to shore in Jonesport, Maine, after tying their boat up at its mooring in Sawyer Cove on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Jonesport and the neighboring island town of Beals, where residents have earned their keep since the late 1700s by catching fish in the ocean, stand to benefit from a proposed $110 million land-based fish farm in Jonesport that local officials and residents say could help diversify the local economy, which currently is dominated by the lobster fishery. Credit: Bill Trotter

Big changes could be in store for a quiet, lobster-fishing community in Washington County if a European firm ends up building a $110 million land-based fish farm on a largely undeveloped property overlooking Chandler Bay.

But Jonesport and its companion town of Beals, connected by a 1,000-foot arched concrete bridge over Moosabec Reach, already have been experiencing major changes in recent decades that have been more subtle, more gradual and less welcome. The towns have grappled with lackluster development, declining populations and school enrollments, and the effects of the opioid addiction crisis that has hit Washington County especially hard and led the FBI to Jonesport and Beals this past spring to raid three suspected drug houses in the community, as well as others in the county.

Nobody expects a major employer moving into town to solve all the challenges the towns face, even if the yellowtail aquaculture company Kingfish Zeeland does what CEO Ohad Maiman says it plans to do — hire 70 people up front, establish a job-training program with the local high school and Maine colleges, and possibly expand production later. But local officials and residents say the development could help boost and diversify the area’s economic prospects without sacrificing the rural, hard-working character of what has been a fishing town for more than 200 years.

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“Fishing has always been our go-to [occupation] and, as far as I’m concerned, always will be,” said William “Billy” Milliken, a Jonesport selectman and local real estate agent. “But, as a Jonesport official, I’ve seen the need for change. Economic diversity is overdue in Jonesport.”

Milliken said he has not been a vocal proponent of the specific proposal from Kingfish Zeeland because he is the listing agent for the 94-acre property where the company plans to build and he personally has a stake in the project’s approval and the sale’s completion. But regardless of location, he said, a $110 million private investment in Jonesport, which now has a townwide property valuation of only $200 million, would have a “big” impact.

Lobstering towns

Jonesport, which has roughly 1,400 residents, and the island town of Beals, with a population about half as big, have been fishing communities for their entire existence. Native Wabanaki fished for food along what is now the Maine coast long before Europeans and their descendents — many of them with the last names Alley and Beal — first appeared locally in the 1700s and later established a commercial sardine industry. After sardines declined, with the last of the canneries shutting down in the 1970s, local residents set their sights on lobster, now the biggest fishery in Maine.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Lobstering is by far the biggest enterprise in Jonesport and Beals, with much of the county’s annual lobster haul coming ashore at the commercial docks that line each side of the ocean thoroughfare that separates the two towns. In 2018 more than 22 million pounds of lobster worth nearly $77 million were caught in Washington County, according to the state Department of Marine Resources.

That’s a substantial amount of money for a county that long has been among the poorest in New England. With a population of roughly 31,000 people, Washington County had a median household income of more than $40,000 in 2017 — just higher than Piscataquis and Aroostook counties, according to federal statistics. And its unemployment rate last year of 4.9 percent was one of the highest in this part of the country.

Even so, like most of Maine’s lobstermen, many in Jonesport and Beals have seen their incomes improve as the fishery’s fortunes have soared since the late 1990s, and they continue to haul in near-record amounts. Countywide annual catches that were around 4 million pounds in the late 1990s have grown to between 21 million and 23 million pounds each year more recently. During that same time, the yearly price Maine lobstermen have averaged for their catch has risen from just shy of $3 to roughly $4 per pound.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Despite the boom, and the long-held pride the two towns take in their signature industry, concerns about the future of lobstering have been on the minds of local residents and along the entire Maine coast as the inevitability of a climate-driven downturn — already evident for lobstermen in southern New England — has become widely accepted. The possibility that federal regulators may significantly tighten restrictions on the industry to protect critically endangered right whales also has some fishermen considering alternate work.

“This lobster prosperity won’t last forever,” Milliken said. “The fishermen have kept our towns alive.”

‘Increasing resilience in coastal communities’

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Brian Beal, who grew up in Jonesport and now is a marine biology professor at the University of Maine at Machias, is optimistic Kingfish Zeeland’s plans will blend in well with the community.

“Historically, it’s already happened,” Beal said, referring to the presence of major industrial employers in town. “There used to be three large sardine plants in Jonesport. [Together] they employed close to 100 people.”

Growing imported fish in tanks also makes sense for the area, Beal said.

“Jobs that involve the marine environment, one way or another, is a great idea, as long as it is environmentally acceptable,” he said, adding that the fish farm is not expected to have an adverse environmental impact on shore or the adjoining ocean. “It is increasing resilience in coastal communities.”

When he graduated from Jonesport-Beals High School in 1975, Beal said there were 35 students in the senior class and roughly 130 in the school. According to local schools Superintendent Lewis Collins, 81 students are now enrolled at the high school.

“The younger population is leaving,” Beal said. “The end result is fewer and fewer people. This [proposal from Kingfish Zeeland] might be a way to change the flow.”

Albert Carver, owner of Beals seafood distribution firm A.C. Inc., was one of a small group of local men seated at a table at Moosabec Variety on Main Street on a recent Thursday afternoon who talked about the Kingfish Zeeland proposal.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Carver and others at the table said when they were younger, families often encouraged their grown children to move away for opportunities elsewhere, whether to attend college, join the military or look for work. If Kingfish Zeeland sets up shop in Jonesport and starts by hiring 70 people, that could mean dozens of local families would be spared having to repeat those same conversations, Carver said.

“It’s going to be an explosion of opportunity,” he said, though it could mean he has to offer more money to his 40 employees to keep them from changing jobs.

“If they’re after my employees, I’m going to have to be competitive with my pay,” Carver said. Still, he added, “it will breathe new life into the community.”

Lagging development

Milliken said Jonesport and Beals draw more summer residents and visitors than they used to in the 1980s, when he started in the real estate business. Jonesport has a decent amount of housing, he said — a legacy from the mid-20th century when its population was 3,500 people — and amenities such as good local internet access and online vacation rental services have made it easier for visitors to find Jonesport and stay for weeks or even months at a time if they can work remotely.

But, he added, the growth in the town’s tourism sector has been hampered by two big limitations: the lack of public water and sewer systems in Jonesport’s central village. Neither of those is needed for the Kingfish Zeeland project, which would be a few miles east of the central village on Route 187, at Dun Garvan Road. But when it comes to operating hotels and restaurants on the small parcels of land on Main Street, Milliken said, it can be a challenge to find the space required for the wells and septic systems those types of businesses need.

As things stand, there are no hotels in Jonesport, and the only places that sell any kind of prepared food year-round — Stewart’s Grocery, Moosabec Variety and Jonesport Pizza — sell most of their items to go. For many years there were restaurants in town such as Tall Barney’s, which gained fame for its so-called “Liar’s Table” before shutting down earlier this decade, but the number of retail businesses in town have thinned out over time, Milliken said.

Credit: Bill Trotter

“We’ve been trying to encourage that type of growth for a while,” he said. Local residents are not interested in trying to become another Bar Harbor, he said, but having a few more retail businesses that appeal to local residents and visitors alike only makes sense.

The state’s ongoing, multi-year bridge reconstruction project over Moosabec Reach has brought in a few dozen jobs with Freeport-based CPM Constructors that have helped to boost the customer base for local retail businesses, he noted, and the prospect of Kingfish Zeeland bringing in 100 or so more workers for an 18-month construction project could be a good opportunity to get a local restaurant off the ground.

The boost in property tax revenue from the fish farm one day could lead to the town making an investment in public water and sewer, Milliken added.

“It might start the conversation,” the selectman said.

A ‘priceless’ quality of life

Despite the challenges facing the community, Milliken and Beal said they would not trade away the rural, independent, working-waterfront lifestyle of Jonesport and Beals simply for the promise of more money.

The beautiful coastal scenery, the lack of congestion and the comfort of living in a small town are appealing to a lot of people, Beal said.

“This is a great place to live,” he said. “It’s great to be able to work in the place where you grew up.”

Credit: Bill Trotter

Milliken represents the ninth generation of his family to live in the community, and he is proud that his two sons are local lobstermen. Between his sons and a daughter, who lives in Bangor, he said, he has three grandchildren whom he hopes will want to stick around and help extend his family’s local lineage past 11 generations.

“We don’t use our [vehicle] horns in anger. We use them to say hello,” he said. “We want to keep it that way. The quality of life you get here is priceless.”

Watch: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....