A Woman’s Place on the Working Waterfront

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JENNIE BICHREST BEGAN HAULING TRAPS BY HAND, AND NOW RUNS A LARGE BAIT BUSINESS
 

This story first appeared in the Island Institute’s The Working Waterfront newspaper, and is reproduced here with permission. Click here

(Personal photos courtesy of Jennie Bichrest)

August 2019

Story and Photos by Kelli Park

From hand-hauling lobster traps to selling more than 10 million pounds of bait annually, Jennie Bichrest knows the working waterfront inside out. This summer, as the lobster industry faces a shortage of herring, the bait of choice, her business—Purse Line Bait—is playing a critical role in keeping that waterfront working.

Bichrest was growing up in Illinois until a vacation brought her family to the Maine coast in the early 1970s. Her father was hooked, and family vacations were then spent on a commercial fishing boat. Later, her father bought a 46-foot sailboat with a vision of educating his children as they sailed around the world. The family moved to Cundy’s Harbor in Harpswell, and though the children did learn to sail, the around-the-world voyage never happened.

Instead, Bichrest stumbled upon old wooden lobster traps in her neighbor’s barn, which inspired her, with the help of her grandfather, to build her own by steaming and bending wooden bows using a steam-box she found in the barn.

While her father found work on fishing boats in and around Cundy’s Harbor, Bichrest hauled traps by hand with her own skiff and spent time with her friends working on the water, where she was the only woman.

“I was never a ‘girly’ girl,” she says. The group she hung out with was into fishing, so that became her focus as well. She eventually married Mark Bichrest, whose family has been fishing for five generations.

The two worked independently on the water—she lobstering, he dragging—until pogies arrived on the coast in the late 1980s. Mark was fishing for a Russian ship, Riga, which anchored offshore and processed fish into fishmeal. “They all wanted jeans, Levi jeans from Goodwill,” she remembers. “Jeans and cigarettes.”

Jennie and Mark soon started their bait business with a boatload of pogies at a time, delivering to local wharves and individual boats, until word spread and demand grew.

“When we first got in business, we knew you had to have storage,” she remembers. “The herring were only around so long. We survived more on fresh fish coming in. We had dump trucks, and we loaded the fresh fish every day and we would go to the wharves.”

But if there was no catch, her customers had no bait.

“That’s when we started barreling bait,” she explains. “Once they started with the quotas, there was more need for freezers and storage.”

Within a few short years, the business had evolved from boatloads of pogies, to truckloads of fish, to the widespread distribution of salted, barreled bait with the need for storage facilities.

Demand continued to grow and in 1996, the couple bought a facility in Sebasco once used to make ice for fishing boats, and it became home for Purse Line Bait. After their divorce in 2003, Jennie Bichrest expanded the business with the purchase of additional freezer facilities in Harpswell to meet the demand created by quotas placed upon commercial fishing—more freezer space was needed to store fish, ensuring its availability throughout the year after quotas had been met.

Bichrest currently relies on five suppliers for a steady stream of herring, pogies, and redfish from as far away as New Jersey and Canada. She stores three million pounds in each of her Phippsburg and Harpswell facilities, and another three million pounds in rented space south of Portland.

The vagaries of fish populations impact the business, she said.

“The first year pogies hit it was devastating,” because when that fish was available for bait, the demand for other bait, like that which Purse Line sold, can decrease rapidly. If her freezers are full because fishermen are buying bait from different sources, her largest supplier will find other markets for his product.
“People don’t understand that you have to keep it all going, or they’re not going to be there. That’s what frightens me,” she confesses. “They don’t think about all the other people the business supports—the carriers, the other boats.”

In February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut the 2019 herring quota by about 70 percent, from 110 million pounds to 33 million pounds. Herring is the most commonly used bait in the lobster industry. Bichrest believes that the cut will hit the island communities the hardest, where lobstermen rely on the carriers for bait.

“There’s not enough freezers in the state of Maine with this latest herring cut,” she says. “And really, more importantly, we’re going to lose the infrastructure.”

Bichrest has advocated for conservation measures that would ensure sustainable fisheries, including encouraging closures during spawning on Georges Banks, popular fishing grounds between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, to promote the growth of young fish.

“You can’t continue to kill babies and expect to have a healthy fishery,” she says.

Portland Shipper Offers ‘First Pallet Free’

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This story first appeared in the Island Institute’s The Working Waterfront newspaper, and is reproduced here with permission. Click here

January 21, 2020

Story/Photos by Kelli Park

The Maine Port Authority and Icelandic shipping company Eimskip are collaborating on a new initiative to put Maine on the international map, one pallet-load at a time.

The initiative, launched in April, aims to remove obstacles for Maine businesses exploring international trade opportunities using Eimskip’s vast network. First Pallet Free offers free first-time shipping anywhere on the Eimskip network for local businesses to transport a 4-foot by 4-foot pallet, which can hold as much as 2,000 pounds of goods. Three Maine businesses have taken advantage of the opportunity since the program’s launch, one of which has grown significantly and is now paying to ship products internationally.

Port authority CEO Jon Nass acknowledges that taking shipping to an international market is a big step for many businesses.

“There are a lot of barriers. It’s hard to export things,” he concedes. “There are regulations, there’s cost, there’s risk. We’re taking one of those things off the table—the cost of shipping that product.”

The initiative, Nass believes, will help Maine businesses become competitive globally and have more options. The presence of Eimkip (pronounced AIM-skip) in Portland is key to those options. The Icelandic-based firm has 63 offices in 20 countries on four continents, from Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand to Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, and operates 22 vessels. Most of its shipping is in the North Atlantic, but the firm offers freight “forwarding” service elsewhere.

In Portland, Eimskip took over as the operator of the port in 2013. Monthly ship visits quickly evolved into weekly ships, sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland; to Argentia, Newfoundland; to Halifax, Nova Scotia; and to Portland, and back again—a ten-day journey one way.

“We got to weekly service several years ahead of schedule,” Nass said. “The fact that there’s a ship coming every week attracts bigger customers. It builds on itself. If you’re a company that ships every week or every month, you want to know that the option is going to be there.”

With a little help from Eimskip, the port of Portland has become a key player on the North Atlantic stage. In 2018, $460 million worth of products from 11 of Maine’s 16 counties moved through the port, including frozen blueberries from Washington County.

Portland is the first container stop for Eimskip to enter the U.S. market, with access to 60 million people within 375 miles—roughly a one-day truck drive, a standard industry measurement. This geographic area includes the cities of Quebec and Montreal, and the states of Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Before Eimskip began operating in Portland, Maine businesses relied heavily on Boston and New Jersey for container shipping.

“Eimskip is the right size for the port we have,” Nass said. “They have a successful niche market that works well with the products we move in and out of here. It’s a great relationship. We would probably not be where we are without a company like Eimskip to prove that this can be done, and that a small port can be successful.”

In fact, Nass believes small ports are playing an increasing role in the shipping world.

“We’re proving the economics of smaller vessels, particularly between Portland and Halifax,” he said.

The First Pallet Free deal requires extensive legwork—food and alcohol regulations, shipping logistics, marketing, international trade law, product legality, tax implications, and tariffs, to name a few.

The Maine Port Authority collaborates with other organizations, such as the Maine International Trade Center and the Maine Regulatory Training and Ethics Center at the University of Southern Maine, to offer professional consulting services for start-up shipping endeavors.

“It’s altruistic to help small Maine businesses, but it’s also a business builder,” said Nass. “We’ll take the risk, and then if you’re wildly successful, we get to ship all sorts of your product and we’ll charge for that.”

The program shows the potential among North Atlantic markets.

“You can spend $1,000 to truck Maine blueberry jelly from Portland to New Jersey, where you can sell it for $2 a jar, or you can ship that same container from Portland to Tromsø, Norway for $1,000, where you can sell it for $7 a jar.”

First Pallet Free is not the first collaborative entrepreneurial endeavor for Eimskip.

“At one of our networking events, there was a brewer and there was a gentleman from Eimskip,” Nass said. “It was what I like to call the chocolate and peanut butter moment, where he said, ‘I have beer,’ and he said, ‘I have refrigerated containers.’ And they came up with this idea for marketing Maine beer overseas.”

Sean Sullivan, director of the Maine Brewers Guild, recalls the “crazy idea of retrofitting a shipping container with 78 beer taps on the side so we could ship and serve Maine beers around the world.” The moment of persuasion came, he remembers, “When Maine brewers found out it was cheaper to ship a container from Portland to Europe than it was to truck it from Portland to New York City.”

Since then, the guild has shipped and served Maine beers to Iceland, England, and Canada, and those countries have sent their products to Maine, helping cultivate a global exchange of beer.

“As an industry, Eimskip has helped Maine brewers realize that by working together and pushing geographic boundaries, business growth can be created for not only those who are exporting, but also for those who make their money by attracting people to Maine for experiences,” said Sullivan.

For more information about the First Pallet Free initiative, see: maineports.com

The Monhegan Trifecta: Beer, Coffee, Chocolate

Due North Project, Maine Documentary Photography

HOMEGROWN BUSINESSES COLLABORATE AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER

November 19, 2018

This story first appeared in the Island Institute’s The Working Waterfront newspaper, and is reproduced here with permission. Click here

BY KELLI PARK

What’s the word on Monhegan? The answer, offered this summer by an island businesswoman, was to the point—beer, coffee, and chocolate.

In recent months, an island-based coffee roaster and a chocolatier have joined Monhegan Brewing in providing products that make life a little, well, finer.

The entrepreneurial spirit is a natural fit for islanders in spite of, or maybe because of, limitations and obstacles. The island is facing an ongoing water shortage because of concerns about salt water incursion into the aquifer. The cost and effort to ship products off the island and receive ingredients is also an impediment, as is the lack of commercial and residential space. Add in a small labor force and short tourist season, and the islanders are pushed to be creative.

“Being out here, there’s space for creativity,” explains Mandy Metrano, who co-owns La Nef Chocolate with her husband Dylan, and is also the island’s school teacher.

“There are so many people walking down this one road,” which provides opportunity, she says. “There are all these things that I can’t do, but what can I do? What’s missing that we can provide?”

Monhegan Brewing Company, in business now for five years under the guidance of Danny McGovern, and Matt and Mary Weber, has played a pivotal role in inspiring new business ventures. “It’s become an integral part of what’s happening on Monhegan now,” says Dylan Metrano. “People starting businesses from scratch, doing something that hadn’t been on the island before, using local resources to create something they didn’t know they were missing out on. Now it’s hard to imagine the island without these things.”

The brewery has boosted the island’s already robust tourism by offering craft beer for visitors. Hikers, visitors, and locals enjoy 4-5 different varieties of craft beer on tap from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, each of them aptly named for aspects of island life: Trap Stacker Special Ale, Crow’s Nest IPA, Lobster Cove American Pale Ale, and Island Farm Double IPA (just to name a few).

Island Farm Double IPA is named for its connection to the island’s community farm, which uses the brewery’s spent grain and grows hops specifically for the IPA. Over 20,000 people visited the brewery this summer, establishing Monhegan as a destination for craft beverages while creating opportunity for other niche markets.

Matt Weber says the brewery’s success has been “more than we expected and more than we ever hoped for.”

TIME TO MAKE THE COFFEE

Carley Mayhew and Mott Feibusch started Monhegan Coffee Roasters last fall as a creative solution to a simple problem: a lack of fresh coffee. As former residents of Philadelphia, where access to a diverse selection of fresh, quality coffee was part of their daily routine, Mayhew and Feibusch began roasting coffee at home for themselves, and as word spread, for friends and neighbors. “It just kind of expanded into a business,” said Mayhew. “A lot of things on islands happen that way, where you just fill a need that already exists.”

The coffee roasters strive to support sustainable farming practices by infusing the island with organic, fair-trade coffee from around the world. Feibusch describes the nature of coffee as an exploration of influences, origins, flavors, and roasts, and hopes to share that with local coffee drinkers.

“You have a different experience with each cup of coffee. Those experiences led to where we are now,” says Feibusch. Monhegan Coffee Roasters hopes to open a cafe in the next three years, which would not only create a year-round gathering place for community members and events, but would also increase employment opportunities and draw new residents to the island.

CHOCOLATE

Beer, coffee, and, last but certainly not least, chocolate. La Nef Chocolate began as a way to explore “art for various senses” while generating a sustainable, supplemental income, according to Dylan Metrano.

He and wife Mandy Metrano spent last winter studying the art of chocolate-making with an online course, experimenting with confections and local flavors. They use local ingredients whenever possible, including sea salt harvested directly from Monhegan waters and pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) from the island’s community farm. The chocolatiers currently specialize in three products: an assortment of chocolate bars, truffles with ganache, and Sea Legs, pieces of candied ginger dipped in dark chocolate.

Sea Legs are the top seller and are only available at The Barnacle, often the first stop for ferry passengers in search of a remedy for seasickness—lo and behold, chocolate dipped ginger. The chocolate makers enjoy the unrestricted creative process of developing new combinations and flavors, and find great value in sharing their creativity.

“Chocolate is accessible to a lot of people,” Dylan Metrano says. “A lot of artists price a piece of art outside of what people can afford, then one person buys it and you never see it again. With something like chocolate, someone can spend a few dollars and everyone can try it,” explains Dylan.

Island entrepreneurs seize opportunities to support each other with practical solutions to logistical obstacles. La Nef and Monhegan Coffee Roasters currently alternate production schedules to share a commercial space. They also collaborate on coffee-flavored chocolate confections and holiday gift packages with local artist Joan Brady.

Monhegan Brewing Company created Mad Cow Milk Stout with cold brew coffee from Monhegan Coffee Roasters and recently hosted the extremely successful Flights of Fancy, a beer and chocolate pairing event with La Nef Chocolate.

Brunswick Boosts Next Generation of Marine Entrepreneurs

Due North Project, Maine Documentary Photography
STUDENT SHELLFISH INITIATIVE IS UNLEASHING SHELLFISH POTENTIAL

October 31, 2018

BY KELLI PARK

This story first appeared in the Island Institute’s The Working Waterfront newspaper, and is reproduced here with permission. Click here

Young marine entrepreneurs in Maine are seeing new opportunities evolve almost as quickly as the changing tides. In Brunswick, the Student Shellfish Initiative is helping some of those young entrepreneurs tap into the potential that lies just beneath the surface of the water—and the mud.

With 66 miles of coastline and eight miles of deep water frontage, the mudflats in Brunswick are arguably the “most valuable real estate in town,” according to the town’s Marine Resource Officer Dan Devereaux. The shellfish industry in Brunswick alone is valued at $4 million, although the ecological value is priceless.

“Trying to relay that importance to the younger generation is really a critical part of keeping our coastline the least gentrified that we can to keep areas working,” explains Devereaux.

The Student Shellfish Initiative is a collaboration among Brunswick High School, the town of Brunswick, and The Tidelands Coalition, a nonprofit organization that promotes marine conservation. Brunswick High School students learn the value of hands-on marine research in the outdoor classroom on the mud flats at Wharton Point on Maquoit Bay, collecting data on shellfish species and seeding the flats with soft-shell clams from the Down East Institute.

The growing popularity of the Brunswick Student Shellfish License Program is attributed to the interactive experience provided by the outdoor classroom within the past two years. Fifteen student licenses were issued this year, with most students actively digging daily during the summer; a few years ago, only ten licenses were issued with two students actively digging.

Devereaux is currently exploring the idea of developing a mentoring program to promote sustainable practices within the industry. He hopes the Student Shellfish Initiative can be used as a model for other coastal towns.

“If we can get a base of educated diggers, we’re going to be able to manage the resource more intricately and more surgically,” he says. “As we start to educate newer groups of harvesters coming in, getting these students involved and interested at a young age is critically important to keeping this industry alive and thriving.”

Devereaux believes that change is necessary. The industry cannot sustain itself with the same boom-and-bust approach that has been in place over the past century. Many students involved in the program are now exploring the possibilities in aquaculture in response to the changing industry.

Max Burtis, Max Friedman, and Samuel Dorval, all graduates of Brunswick High School and current college freshmen, have taken their entrepreneurial spirit to the next level with the creation of Ferda Farms on the New Meadows River. They started by harvesting clams at low tide, and then began to explore ideas for generating supplemental income during high tide. The business partners chose their name as an ode to their love for hockey; players use the slang term “ferda” as a shortened version of “for the boys.”

In July, Ferda Farms started with 50,000 oyster seeds from Muscongus Bay Aquaculture and has since expanded to 100,000 oysters. According to Burtis, everyone in the aquaculture industry has been more than willing to share their knowledge and experience, because, he says, “There’s still so much to be learned.”

Burtis has an entrepreneurial mind and believes the job market is a trap for many people. The young men talk about how most people their age are washing dishes, serving ice cream, or working retail.

“It gets the best of a lot of people. They get caught in a place where they don’t want to be,” says Burtis.

“It’s really cool to feel like you’re actually starting something,” says Friedman. “It says something to have a vision.”

Sisters in Recovery: Colleen Francke

Due North Project, Maine Documentary Photography
Aquaculture For Women Recovering from Addiction is Colleen Francke’s Dream 

This story first appeared in the Island Institute’s The Working Waterfront newspaper, and is reproduced here with permission. Click here

May 21, 2018

By Kelli Park

Planting and maintaining a garden can help those recovering from addiction. The recovering person learns responsibility while cultivating, nurturing, and investing time and effort, during which the individual grows along with the garden.

Colleen Francke has taken this concept and adapted it to the ocean, planning an aquaculture farm in which women recovering from addiction can heal and grow while cultivating kelp, oysters, and mussels. Francke recently put her plan into motion with the creation of Summit Point Seafood, an aquaculture farm that would operate off Sturdivant Island in Cumberland for women who are in recovery and learning to live without substances. Salt Sisters is the fundraising campaign that supports the project.

Francke is committed to providing women with a safe work environment as they navigate the recovery process and learn about aquaculture.

“I decided in early 2016 to stop using substances to cope with life. During that process, I met a lot of women who helped me through that really difficult transition,” she remembers.

“When I started this process, someone said to me, ‘There are things in your life that alcohol took away from you. What are those things?’ My dream to finish college was one of them, my art was another thing, and going further with aquaculture was another one. So I looked at that and said, ‘I’m going to go for it. I’m going to start taking the steps to do this project and build a farm,’” she says.

Francke, 32, has spent most of her life around the water. Growing up in Eastham on Cape Cod, her first job was cutting fish and cooking lobster at a local fish market. After she moved to Maine, she learned about aquaculture while working on a mussel farm in Casco Bay. These days, she lobsters offshore aboard the Linda Kate out of Portland, while planning the future of Summit Point Seafood and Salt Sisters.

On board the Linda Kate, Francke moves with a quiet confidence, tacking tasks swiftly and gracefully, revealing her comfort on the water. She’s in her element.

When she talks about her vision for the aquaculture operation, there’s an energy and joy that show in her smile.

Inspiration from her surroundings came at an early age, she explains, and her connection to the sea informs her goals.

“There was a landing in the town that I grew up in and there was a woman who used to dig clams there. I remember her coming in every day, carrying her catch in bright orange baskets,” Francke says.

“I’d never really seen a woman like that. She was independent and she was stunningly beautiful. She was strong and she was free. I remember watching her and wanting to be exactly like her someday. She had her little skiff and she was happy.”

Those traits can help in recovery.

“Recovery is self-reflective, basically,” she says. “You’re looking at what you’re doing in the world and how you’re feeling, and affecting relationships.”

But as noble as her goals are, Francke has learned that achieving them means relying on others.

“It felt really selfish and ego-driven to say this project is something that I’ve always wanted, and I’m just going to go for it by myself. It just felt like a really shallow endeavor. I wouldn’t have this opportunity without having these other women guide me into this new life that I’m living now,” she says.

“Once I decided to make it a recovery-based program, that’s when the whole thing opened up and got some life to it,” she continues. “Women who are new to recovery can have this place as an outlet, even if they don’t want to work on the farm. They can come hang out and realize that, if I can do this, even if your dream isn’t aquaculture or fishing, there are means in which you can make it happen. If I can do it, you can do it.”

A friend and fellow “salt sister” gives Francke a hearty endorsement.

“Colleen is a frigging powerhouse,” says Mary Taylor of Chebeague Island. “She’s a hard worker, she knows her sh–, she’s good on deck and she’s got a good vision. She wants to be on the water. I’m proud of her with her sobriety. Her vision is true and pure, and she has good intentions. I’d go anywhere on a boat anytime with her,” Taylor, who also lobsters, said.

Francke is already looking beyond the farm.

“Down the road, the idea is to have this fundraising campaign, Salt Sisters, turn into its own nonprofit. At that point, Summit Point would be running like a flagship farm, and then Salt Sisters, as a nonprofit, can go to Cape Cod and get farms started there for women in recovery, or go to California, where ever there’s a need. That nonprofit will be able to say, we’re going to help these women if they want help with doing the paperwork, lease applications, funding, etc. If these women are in the same position that I’m in now, they’ll keep paying back. It starts a cycle bigger than itself,” she explains.

Francke has submitted an aquaculture lease application to the Department of Marine Resources and has raised $2,000 toward her initial $50,000 goal. For more information , see www.summitpointseafood.com or Summit Point Seafood on Facebook.