When she isn’t planting, maintaining, or harvesting oysters, Alicia Gaiero, owner of Nauti Sisters Sea Farm, works as a nanny for a family who lives on an island at the edge of Maine’s Casco Bay. But the side job has provided her with something just as valuable as an added income: a place to enter the bay and store her equipment.
“Meeting this family [has] changed my life,” said Gaiero. “I keep all of my equipment there, and I’m able to work [from] the island—where before I had to transport everything, every single day.”
Despite growing up in Maine, Gaiero did not come from a fishing family, nor did she grow up eating oysters. But once she tasted one while working as an intern with a salmon farm, Gaiero knew she wanted to work with them. She started Nauti Sisters in 2019 and currently farms 110,000 oysters per year, selling directly to restaurants in the Portland area, as well as some local wholesalers.
Like many young people, though, she moves from apartment to apartment every few years, and finding a home with a place to store her boat and equipment—which includes bags, additional cages, and processing equipment, all of which can get quite smelly—posed a challenge.
“I can’t believe I thought I’d be successful without having waterfront access,” said Gaiero, who now also works as a consultant to help other young farmers start businesses. “It has been a really big deal to have water access.”
But Gaiero’s situation is uncommon. Much like young farmers on land, most young oyster farmers and others in aquaculture face serious challenges finding a place to farm. Even when they do, maintaining access can be an ongoing challenge. According to 2019 data from the University of Maine, for example, only 20 miles of Maine’s 5,300-mile coastline supports working-waterfront activities—which include spaces where people can bring a boat, offload and work on gear, and moor a vessel in safe waters—with all-tide access, connection to public roads, and parking. That number has decreased 20 percent since 2002.
“Private landowners basically see Maine as a cheap date compared to Boston, New York, or other very expensive places, so there’s a lot of pressure on families to sell their family docks.”
In Maine and along the Eastern coast, fishermen’s groups are working to protect and expand working waterfronts, with all the economic benefits they bring. Working waterfronts generate more than $740 million in revenue annually and support roughly 35,000 jobs for the state, according the University of Maine data. In addition to being a fast-growing seafood industry, oysters are a mainstay on restaurant menus, and some enterprising oyster farmers offer tourism packages for visitors.
Despite this value, many young people in aquaculture—as well as established aquaculture producers—are contending with pressures from development and land-use policies that put their access to the ocean at risk. Without that access, aquaculture farmers struggle to succeed—and some decide against entering the industry in the first place.
Threats to Working Waterfronts
A report from the Island Institute, a Maine-based nonprofit that supports the state’s coastal and island communities, cited factors such as a lack of financial support, dock maintenance, and affordable housing, as well as climate change as the biggest risks to Maine’s working waterfronts.
Among all these reasons, development pressure stands out as particularly challenging for young aquaculture farmers.
“The cost of taxes is super high, [and] there’s development pressure from people coming from outside wanting to buy up coastal properties and develop them into real estate investments,” said Afton Vigue, the outreach and development specialist for the Maine Aquaculture Association. “”Private landowners basically see Maine as a cheap date compared to Boston, New York, or other very expensive places, so there’s a lot of pressure on families to sell their family docks. That increased pressure to sell and a super competitive real estate market has made it harder for anyone who works on the water to be able to own a home on the water or even a home within reasonable driving distance of the ocean.”
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration provided a grant to a number of nonprofits including Sea Grant programs in Maine, Florida, and Virginia with the goal of gathering information to preserve working waterfronts. But there has been little federal action.
And the Keep America’s Waterfronts Working Act, which would create a pilot for a loan fund for working waterfronts preservation, was last reintroduced in 2021 by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Congressman Rob Wittman (R-Virginia), but it hasn’t passed.
Up and down the East Coast, as fishing has become less profitable, fish piers have been replaced with condos and fishing boats have been pushed out by yachts, according to Bob Rheault, the executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
“The issues of working waterfront access have been challenging watermen, fishermen, and [people working in] aquaculture for years and are continuing to worsen,” Rheault explained. “Even with the annual Working Waterfront Conference and federal legislation put in place to address the issue, little progress has actually been made.”