I’ve always had a mixed relation to formality. On one hand, I was taught to address people older than myself as Mr. or Mrs. until they told me otherwise. On the other hand, I’ve never had trouble asking questions of just about anyone, whether schoolteachers, heads of major companies or public officials. The fact that they hold a title means I should endeavor to be polite when asking the question, not that I should feel cowed. 

Maine turned out to be the ideal place for me to live because that melding of the formal and the informal is, or at least was, imbued in everything from its landscape to its church suppers. It is certainly an integral part of the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum, which begins today at the Samoset Resort. 

The forum, now in its 42nd year, evolved in response to a major regulatory change in New England fisheries. Alarmed by the incursions of foreign fishing vessels in areas traditionally fished by American fishermen, Congress in 1976 passed the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act). That Act declared that waters out to 200 nautical miles of the coast were under the authority of the United States and that foreign fishing was prohibited there except by permit. New England fishermen, who were largely free to fish when and where they wished at that point, were suddenly facing a new world in which “gov’mnt” would be directly involved in fishing. 

Jim Wilson, University of Maine Department of Economics professor, and his research assistant, Robin Alden, went out to interview fishermen about their views of the impending regulatory changes. After all, fishermen are considered notoriously independent-minded; the idea of having Uncle Sam looking over your shoulder as you haul back a net was unsettling. 

After attending a meeting of Rhode Island fishermen who were discussing what the future might hold, Wilson decided that Maine needed a similar gathering. In 1976, he and Alden, with support from Maine Sea Grant, organized a meeting to be held on the first weekend of March, when weather at sea was notoriously lousy. The location was the Samoset Resort; the cost to attend was $2.

From the start the purpose of the forum was to bring together those who fish with the scientists and government officials intimately involved in resource management. Such a gathering had not been done before. “The idea of combining in one place fishermen and their families, government people at all levels, providing a venue for politicians to identify the industry as a unit, and making it a safe place to exchange information was revolutionary,” Alden said in a 2005 article on the forum published in Commercial Fisheries News. 

By 1984, the forum had become a major annual event for Maine’s fishermen. After establishing a board of directors, it incorporated as a nonprofit organization. The board comprised representatives from the state’s different commercial fisheries, as well as staff from the Department of Marine Resources and Maine Sea Grant and at-large members. 

Although the forum was popular, the cost of putting it on was more than the revenue raised through advertising, an auction and registration fees. So, beginning in 1989, an industry trade show took place in concert with the fisheries seminars. The board was concerned that the trade show would alter attendance at the presentations but, in fact, the opposite proved true. Attendance went up as more people came to cruise the aisles packed with engines, electronic equipment, gear and other essentials of the fishing trade and then dropped in on a seminar. The trade show became the financial bread-and-butter of the forum; attendance at the forum became free to all. 

I attended my first Fishermen’s Forum in 1990. The atmosphere was boisterous and rambunctious, though a pale shadow of earlier days when fishermen were apt to spend long hours at the bar and even longer hours at private parties in the Samoset. Groundfishing was still the predominant fishery in Maine that year. In 1990, Maine fishermen landed 15,276,501 pounds of cod; in 1991 they hit the record, landing 21 million pounds. After that, everything changed. A lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation against the National Marine Fisheries Service alleging that NMFS was not enforcing the conservation aspects of the Magnuson Act proved successful. New regulations instituted by the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) requiring fishermen to adhere to a specific number of fishing days each season and lower annual quotas for cod and other groundfish caused landings to drop and drop sharply.

The tone of the forum during the 1990s was often contentious as fishermen struggled to adjust to scarcity rather than abundance. Fishermen have loud voices and they are not afraid to use them. Those who came to explain new rules and ominous research data often faced angry crowds. Yet, state and federal officials consistently showed up; they still show up. Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Maine, NEFMC, Department of Marine Resources, Congressional offices, the Governor’s Office — they come each year to talk, to argue, to discuss in the hallways, in the bar, at lunch, in the evenings. Everyone talks! The formal and the informal meld together, sometimes in anger, often in camaraderie, and generally with respect. 

Step into the Samoset this weekend and listen. The decibel level will be loud, there will be pointed questions asked of those with titles, and undoubtedly some will be unhappy with the answers. But everyone will be available, with none of the reserve often seen in more formal, hierarchical settings. It’s exhausting and it is fun!