PORTLAND, Maine — Brian Pearce of North Yarmouth usually heads out on the 45-foot Gracelyn Jane from April or May through January, fishing for monkfish or groundfish -- hake, haddock, pollock, redfish, and cod.
As with most everything else, though, this year was different. When COVID-19 hit, the market for local fish -- primarily restaurants and exports -- was among the many casualties.
Pearce, along with many Maine fishermen, found it wasn't worth the time and cost to fish, so they tied up their boats.
But early Monday morning, Pearce docked at the Portland Fish Exchanged and unloaded about 2,000 pounds of pollock, hake, cod, redfish, and haddock after a quick overnight trip.
That fish, along with about 10,000 pounds already landed and more to come, is on its way to the Good Shepherd Food Bank and local schools.
He is among a number of fishermen involved in Fishermen Feeding Mainers, a project spearheaded by Maine Coast Fishermen's Association designed to get fishermen back to work and feed hungry Mainers.
"The project was able to establish a bottom price for us to get for our fish, a guaranteed price, which made it worthwhile to go out," Pearce said.
With seed funding from an anonymous donor who funded similar projects around the country, Maine Coast Fishermen's Association put fishermen from Kennebunk to Harpswell to Port Clyde back to work, executive director Ben Martens said.
"We built a cost-effective program to supply high-quality protein meals," he said."
Martens said the organization hopes to eventually donate 50,000 pounds of fish to food-insecure organizations.
“This project got started because we started to see the collapse of some of our local markets when it came to seafood like codfish and monkfish and haddock and halibut and all the groundfish species," he said. "The price just started to disappear because we lost the restaurants, and the restaurants are really one of the most important markets for our fresh, local seafood.”
"And at the same time, COVID was hitting and we started reading all these stories about how food insecure Maine is … and how Maine people were just struggling to get good quality food into their diets."
"The hope is that within our local communities we then can start building support where we can show there is real value to paying the fishermen a livable wage," he said. "That money goes back into the community, whether the fishermen are buying their own food or paying their mortgage or anything else. And then feeding people in our local communities. This is a great opportunity to feed people but also a real important injection of capital into our economy which is struggling to get started right now at the Main Street level."
Martens said he also hopes the project will provide an opportunity to "jumpstart relationship building between the people who provide the food and the people who are eating it."
To donate to the Fishermen Feeding Mainers project, visit the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association website.
The more the project raises, the more fishermen will join and the more fish will be donated.