Maine Congresswoman pitches grant program for working waterfronts

A Maine congresswoman is calling on the federal government to establish a grant program to preserve waterfront access for those who make a living on it.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree testified at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing Thursday, 2 November, in support of her bill, dubbed the Keep America’s Waterfronts Working Act. The Democrat said that commercial fishermen and others whose jobs are based on waterfronts are losing access to them because housing and other development opportunities.

“(W)aterfront access is quickly disappearing under pressure from incompatible development,” she said. “Our fishermen already have concerns about changes in the Oceans, storm surge OR migration patterns in fish, or changes in their lobster traps… things they have never seen before in their traps.  But when you add to these issues, the loss of access, it truly puts our communities, and their economies at risk.”

Many states, like Maine, already have grant programs to protect waterfront access, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has the Coastal Zone Management Program, which helps communities balance competing interests for coastal development.

Pingree’s bill, which is also sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Wittmann (R-Virginia), would ensure NOAA dedicates funding for the CZMA’s work.

Commercial fishing is a major contributor to the Maine economy, Pingree said. It’s impact in 2016 surpassed USD 700 million (EUR 601.1 million). In addition, more than 1,400 residents worked at the approximately 80 boat builders in the state.

Pingree said there are more than 20 “working waterfront” projects underway in Maine alone. However, this program would help small businesses who depend on waterfront access in other parts of the country as well.

Richard Nelson, a commercial fisherman from Friendship, Maine, said his livelihood depends having access to a harbor.

“Without places to work on, store, load and unload, their catch, gear and boats, fishing, as we know it in Maine, will cease to exist,” he said. 

Besides Pingree, Rob Snyder, president of the Island Institute, testified in support of the bill.

Snyder called the grant program necessary, especially for commercial fishermen and lobstermen, because it will give communities an opportunity to bolster their infrastructure. Besides competing developmental interests, those who work on the waterfront also face environmental obstacles.

“Storm surge has the potential to structurally change the communities and economy of our coast,” he said. “Direct wave action or elevated water levels in a protected cove can easily cause significant damage to the infrastructure that supports fishing. From floating docks to bait coolers and fuel tanks, there is a lot of important and expensive infrastructure along the coast, and constraints placed on financing properties in the flood zone exacerbate these issues. Fishermen need these places that provide a connection between land and ocean. They are the quintessential ‘water-dependent, coastal related businesses.’”

Maine Gov. Paul LePage also testified at the Thursday hearing. However, he spoke in opposition to the measure. He told committee members that those who make their living on the water face several challenges. 

For example, while Maine has more than 5,300 miles of coastline when islands and peninsulas are considered, he said only 175 miles are truly adequate for business use. Further, as more development pops up along the coast, the increased property tax burden makes it tougher for fishermen to hold on to land that’s been in their families for years.

“Instead of creating this new program, our small businesses, fishing families and lobster co-ops would benefit much more from regulatory reform that reduced their costs of doing business, tax reforms that reduced their financial burden and a trade policy that protects their interests by keeping the playing field level,” LePage said.


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