BAR HARBOR, MAINE — With his ever-present cap shading his eyes, Howdy Houghton inserts his spirited voice where and when he feels it needs to be heard. “Our food system is paramount to everything. Tell me one person that doesn’t eat!” he exclaimed at a public scoping session for the Penobscot River Restoration Project. Standing beside environmental and salmon advocates, he stressed the importance of restoring river herring to the Gulf of Maine.
Most nights, you can find Howdy closing up buildings at the College of the Atlantic as night watchman; during the day he works part-time keeping the facilities at Maine Sea Coast Mission in order. But he also remains true to his past as a commercial fisherman. While fishing for groundfish out of Bar Harbor in the 1970s and ’80s, most of his catch was cut and sold locally, as were his handpicked mussels in the ’90s. It’s this experience and his desire to connect people and the sea that strengthen his efforts to be a voice for fishermen and sustainable communities in Downeast Maine.
A lot has changed since Howdy fished for cod and other once-abundant groundfish. The collapse of bottom fish in the Gulf of Maine led to complex efforts to rebuild populations, resulting in regulatory changes that have tended to force small-scale fishermen like Howdy off their boats. In small communities all along Maine’s coast, fishermen are losing access to a public resource that is becoming increasingly privatized. The impact is felt by the entire community, as a once direct link to a critical food source is pushed aside in favor of consolidated, large-scale fishing fleets that regulators find easier to manage.
It is the connection between the local food economy and access to coastal fisheries that animates Howdy most, whether he’s speaking at public forums and meetings with policymakers or with colleagues on campus or at the local bars. In local and statewide efforts to build food co-operatives, he ardently reminds people to include locally harvested seafood as part of the picture. “This has motivated me to spend ever increasing time traveling to meet with fishermen, legislators, and the whole realm between producers and consumers in our local foodshed,” says Howdy. “I go to the Maine Feeds Maine meetings and try to connect them with the fisheries, and go to fisheries meetings and try to connect them with the concept of seafood being part of the local food economy.”
As a member of the steering committee of the Downeast Initiative, a new nonprofit, Howdy has helped define the organization’s mission of working toward policy changes that honor the voice of small-scale fishermen, consider the impact of fishing pressure on localized fishery stocks, and ensure local access to the fishery resources of the Gulf of Maine. Through his support of these organizations — and the local food co-operatives he is also helping to build — he makes visible the concerns of Maine’s fishing communities, in hopes of restoring the resilience of coastal communities and maintaining traditional lifestyles that are an integral part of Maine’s economy and culture.