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Maine fishing businesses struggling to recover a month after January storms

The Greenhead Lobster dock on the south side of Stonington, amid flooding from the storm surge of a January storm that damaged much of Maine's coastline.
Allison Nelson
Greenhead Lobster
The Greenhead Lobster dock on the south side of Stonington, amid flooding from the storm surge of a January storm that damaged much of Maine's coastline.

Greenhead Lobster is a well-established business in Stonington. With three docks in town, the company buys lobsters from more than a hundred boats in the summer months, before sorting and processing the lobsters for sale.

Today it's relatively quiet, still the offseason, but two boats stop by one of Greenhead's docks to refuel and drop off their lobster hauls. It's high tide, which means the water is higher and close to shore, but with little wind it's calm and flat — what owner Hugh Reynolds calls an ice cream day.

It's almost hard to picture the devastating January storms that flooded these same docks, sweeping crates out into the water and inundating the electrical systems on shore.

"I mean, you're just sitting there like, that's pretty high tide," Reynolds says. "That's really high tide."

He wasn't at the office during the first storm, taking a rare sick day. But that just meant he was getting a constant stream of texts and photos as the storm escalated.

"And then, you know, half hour later, like, we're flooded, like, unimaginable," he says. "Things are underwater, it just happened so quickly, you know?"

It's a similar story along all of Maine's coast. And unlike the fishing industries in other states, Maine's is primarily small, family businesses — many that have existed for generations. And now they are faced with trying to restore the historic infrastructure.

Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association estimates that more than half of Maine's working waterfront was damaged in the storms.

"There are things that will not ever be coming back in because of these storms, and how do we, how do we remember them? How to reflect on that? And how do we not lose that important part of our heritage?" he says.

Martens says many structures were built before modern zoning and permitting were in place and, in some cases, it's not even clear who owns the land. Buildings were grandfathered into the regulations. Families and businesses are trying to rebuild, but because the damage is so unprecedented, local officials are struggling to find answers about whether some structures can even be replaced.

"Even right now I've got, you know, fishermen up and down the coast are trying to rebuild, they're like, 'Well, can we build it taller?' it's like, you are not allowed to do that right now," he says.

At Greenhead Lobster, although the company is functional for the off-season, Reynolds estimates he has 3-4 months before lobster season starts in earnest. And it will cost at least a quarter of a million dollars to be ready by then — not accounting for longer term repairs.

"I'm a little bit short sighted here but I don't know what else to do about it," Reynolds said.

As for Maine's working waterfront as a whole, Martens says he expects repairs to cost at least tens of millions.

Although state and federal legislators have voiced support, the timeline for getting funding to businesses isn't clear, and could take months.

"I had a fisherman who called and was asking is like, 'Should I build this back as quickly and cheaply as possible with the thought of just making a disposable piece of working waterfront to tear down for when there are resources and opportunities to build it back stronger?'" Martens says. "And I was like, 'Well, you could do that. We also might get another storm next week, or next month.'"

But with warmer months and a busy fishing season ahead, coastal communities can't wait for answers on zoning or funding or timing. They're already doing what they can to get back up and running.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.