As the seagulls cried and the smell of the ocean filled the air, Bill Needleman greeted a group of people on an eventful visit to the Portland waterfront.
Saturday was the seventh annual Walk the Working Waterfront. Free to the public and offered by the New England Ocean Cluster, it was an open house for the people, businesses and organizations that make up Portland’s ocean economy.
“I call it my on-site, real-time, large-scale, in-person PowerPoint. We’ll talk about what we see,” said Needleman, City of Portland Waterfront Coordinator. On his tour, there were places that audiences don’t often see, like the Fish Exchange in Portland and the equipment, trucks, and ships that are all part of the bustling scene.
Indeed, the event showed what is not always visible walking down Commercial Street.
The waterfront has 13 wharves and piers: Holyoke, Hobson’s, Wright’s, Merrill’s, Union, Widgery, Chandler’s, Long, Custom House, and the Maine Piers, as well as the Portland Fish Pier, Portland Pier, and Maine State Pier.
There were demonstrations, tours of a US Coast Guard boat and the Portland fireboat, and a “meet a lobster boat” event at Union Wharf.
Tour participants were able to see the lobster buying station at Luke’s Lobster, fishing gear at Maine Fisheries on Merrill’s Wharf, and sample burbot stew at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
The day at the waterfront was well attended, with many people holding up brochures on the crowded commercial street.
A demonstration was given by Walt Golet, professor at the University of Maine and member of the scientific team of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
Standing in front of a bluefish tuna head, Golet wore gloves and an orange jumpsuit as he prepared to perform a head dissection.
Maine has a vibrant bluefin tuna fishery, both commercial and private, he said. Bluefin tuna are highly migratory, swimming from the Gulf of Maine to Europe. Typically, tuna arrive in May and leave the Gulf of Maine in October or November. During the summer, bluefin tuna can be seen swimming up to 80 meters from shore, Golet said. “They are really beautiful.”
He asked his audience helpers, young brothers Jacob and Elliot Brimmer of Dover, New Hampshire: Why are bluefin tuna in Maine?
To fish, Jacob replied.
“It’s okay. They come to eat. The Gulf of Maine is their Becky’s Diner,” Golet joked. When ordering bluefin tuna at a restaurant or buying it at a fish market, consumers can feel good , said Golet, noting that the population of the fishery is healthy Bluefin tuna is regulated to limit catches.
Tuna can reach 12 feet in length and weigh 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, the average being 300 to 500 pounds and 7 1/2 feet long.
With the help of the Brimmer brothers, Golet dissected the tuna’s head, cutting off the eye, ear canal, muscle tissue, and brain.
A bluefin tuna may be big, but its brain is tiny, the size of a thumbnail. Despite this, bluefin tuna cross the Atlantic Ocean in a year and know how to return to the same place every summer. “It’s amazing,” Golet said.
By studying a part of the fish that commercial fishermen don’t use, namely the head, scientists can learn more about a bluefin tuna’s age, health and family members, as well as the region of the Atlantic where this fish originated.
After the dissection demonstration, 10-year-old Jacob Brimmer said “it was kinda gross, but cool”.
Back on the Commercial Street sidewalk, Ed and Amy Francis of Kennebunkport held up the event map and said they were glad they explored the busy waterfront. “It’s so cool that we went to Widgery Wharf,” she said. “I’ve never been there,” he said, adding that the day’s events were very organized.
Needleman, who led the tour, said it was important for the public to see and understand the working waterfront. “It’s part of our economy, part of our heritage and it will be an important part of our future. The ocean is the biggest thing on Earth.
Getting a close-up view of the working waterfront helps the public understand what’s going on, Needleman said, “so we can better value and continue the working waterfront.”
In photos: Alewife return to Mill Brook in Westbrook