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Downeast Groundfish Initiative

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Downesast Groundfish Initiative began in 2003 to restart the locally-owned, small-boat groundfishing industry in eastern Maine. The fishery had collapsed in the mid-1990s due to years of overfishing and other harmful practices.

The initiative is led by the Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC). It includes community organizing efforts and the purchasing of permits in trust to lease to a new generation of groundfishermen.

It also includes a study of the near-shore waters of the Gulf of Maine where groundfishing ended 15 years ago to discern whether a viable, community-based groundfishery can be supported in those waters.

The initiative supports the shift in fishery regulatory strategy for the region where fishermen could join collectively-managed sectors that would harvest an assigned quota of fish in return for freedom from certain effort, area and gear restrictions.

MEBM Attributes

  • Collaboration: Encouraging self-management and resource stewardship among fishermen.
  • Scale: Supporting Area Management, a science-based, locally-adaptive form of resource management.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Downeast Groundfish Initiative is to diversify the lobster-focused fisheries-based economy in northeast Maine by restarting a once-productive groundfishery.


The following three principles guide the initiative:

  • To protect ecosystem structure and function, especially groundfish spawning areas, nursery grounds and other critical habitats by controlling how, when and where fishing is conducted.
  • To create healthy, resource-based communities through partnerships among fishermen, community members, managers and scientists.
  • To support a diversified coastal fishery based on equitable access to resources, principle-based governance and sound science.

Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • Penobscot East Resource Center, a non-profit based in Stonington, Maine.

Key Parties

Partners include community organizations and resource centers in the Downeast Maine region, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, scientists at the University of Maine, the Nature Conservancy, and the following fishermen’s and coastal management organizations:

  • Area Management Coalition
  • Maine Seacoast Mission
  • Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance
  • Stonington Fisheries Alliance
  • Saltwater Network
  • Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association


Program Structure

The Downeast Groundfish Initiative is managed by a project director, who is an employee of the Penobscot East Resource Center, a non-profit that is overseen by a board of directors that includes community members, fishermen and resource managers.

The initiative also uses several part-time interns from the University of Maine, and has assembled a steering committee.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The effects of the collapse of the region’s groundfish stocks and the implications listed below were the main motivations for this initiative:

  • The Downeast coastal communities became dependent on a lobster for their financial health.
  • Many Downeast fishermen were unable to get future fishing permits. These permits were based on a number of elements, including size of the boat, catch history and type of fish being caught. Since there were no fish, the local fishermen were unable to show a catch history and get a future fishing permit.
  • Groundfishing in northeastern coastal Maine traditionally had been a seasonal effort, conducted through hook and line methods from small boats that could not operate safely and in an economically viable manner in the off-shore fishery under the regulatory environment that existed.
  • Small-boat fishermen believed the coastal stocks had been depleted by the larger, more modern and exploitative vessels that began intensively operating in the region following a 1984 agreement in which the United States and Canada subdivided the Gulf of Maine, and required the off-shore U.S. groundfishing fleet to return from what were defined as Canadian waters.
  • Federal regulators responded by increasingly tightening regulations, including increasing limits on the number of days that vessels could be at sea, ordering area closures, and restricting the use of certain types of gear.

The Downeast Groundfish Initiative supported a change in regulatory strategy, which was accepted by Amendment 13 of 2004 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan. It provided for the creation of a collectively-managed fishing sector based on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A later update to the management plan, Amendment 16, authorized the creation of additional sectors, effective 2010. Sectors would be free of restrictions governing days-at-sea, and exempt from rules on certain area closures and gear limitations in order to give members greater flexibility and stewardship over the resource.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Gulf of Maine is a semi-enclosed coastal sea that runs from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. It has relatively cold waters due to the Maine Coastal Current and some of the highest tidal ranges in the world. It also has twenty-one distinct basins which are separated by irregular ridges, banks and swells and can reach depths of 350 meters. It supports a variety of habitats and many different species of plants and animals.


The Gulf of Maine once served as a highly productive groundfish fishery. However, practices such as overfishing and discarding by-catch that included juvenile groundfish as well as a lack of critical habitat protection decimated the area’s groundfish populations by the mid-1990s.


Major Strategies

Sector Management

The main strategy being pursued by the Downeast Groundfish Initiative is the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector, one of the 17 sectors established in 2010 that serve as mechanisms for allocating fishing rights. Through the initiative, eastern Maine fishermen are able to collectively manage their fishing in that sector. Twenty participants applied for sector membership in 2010. All but one of the participants use traditional hook and line methods of fishing, or traps. Sector members can fish for more than 12 species of groundfish.

The Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC) obtained necessary approvals from regional and federal regulators, and recruited additional members based in Massachusetts through a partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. Of the sector’s 20 members, 12 are from Downeast Maine.

Sector members can fish in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and Southeastern New England. The sector receives a share of the total allowable catch that is based on members’ prior performance.

The sector manager, an employee of PERC, oversees compliance with sector operations, and harvest plans, and reports catch and discard numbers to the National Marine Fishery Service weekly. The manager also has the authority to issue a stop fishing order to sector members.

A board of directors oversees policy and long-term management issues, and appoints an infractions committee to ensure the fair, consistent and appropriate enforcement of the sector agreement. The board can establish weekly and monthly allocations of stock quota targets to members to slow harvest rates. All legal-sized targeted species must be retained and landed to minimize discards.

Members contribute to the sector’s operational costs through dues and the assessment of fees. They must sign a legal document acknowledging that a primary purpose is to reduce bycatch – the catching of non-targeted species that are thrown back with a high mortality rate – and to improve resource utilization. Participating vessels may not fish outside of the sector and must stop all fishing activity once the sector’s quota has been attained.

Permit Banking

With funding from The Nature Conservancy and private donors, PERC intends to purchase remaining federal fishing permits in the Downeast area to preserve legal access to the fishery by holding the rights in trust. The first permit was purchased in 2010 from a retiring fisherman who wanted to create opportunity for young fishermen.

Sentinel Fishery

Sector members are participating in a Sentinel Fishery effort, which involves a study of nearly 9,000 square kilometers of the Gulf of Maine adjacent the Downeast coast in statistical areas 511 and 512 in the Northeastern Fisheries Management Plan. Those areas had been a traditional groundfishing area for small boats, but ceased to be viable 15 years ago.

Because of the lack of fishing, PERC believes there is no reliable, scientific data on whether the stock has rebuilt, and could support a small, community-managed groundfishery. Fishing quota will come from the permits on hand in the permit bank.

PERC believes groundfish in the Gulf of Maine need to be managed on a finer, more local scale to account for subpopulations within distinct ecological areas such as the near-shore fishery. It has created a Multispecies Coastal Shelf Recovery Plan with guidelines on how to enhance local spawning events, create conditions that will lead to the repopulation of coastal nursery areas, allow juveniles into the multispecies fishery, and distribute landings equitably. The plan would create zones within the near-shore area to prevent vessels from concentrating too close to more sensitive spawning locations.

One of its references is the work of its founder, Ted Ames, who interviewed long-time groundfishermen to develop an ecological history of the spawning grounds of the former Downeast fishery.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Monitoring is a critical piece of the Downeast Groundfish Initiative. The Northeast Communities Coastal Sector will participate in the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, an effort of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass, and National Marine Fishery Service-funded at-sea monitoring programs. The University of Maine will design the research framework.

In addition, on-board observers will accompany fishermen participating in the sentinel fishery effort to record the location of any catch, and the size, weight, and species of any fish.


  • Building Community: Downeast fishermen are connecting across generations and have a vehicle to represent themselves to fisheries regulators and the public to advocate for access and improved stewardship of the resource.
  • Building Trust: Fishermen and scientists, who had been at odds in the past, are working and learning together about the Downeast fishery resource.

Website Links

Penobscot East Resource Center: