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Maine fishermen caught more fish in 2023, thanks to a hunger relief program and COVID funds

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine fishermen bucked yearslong, industrywide trends last year and caught more fish, a development regulators and industry members said shows the impact of COVID-19 relief funds.

Maine has long been a leader in catching groundfish, which are bottom-dwelling species of fish such as cod and flounder that are often used in seafood staples such as fish and chips. The New England groundfishing industry has been in decline for decades due in part to past overfishing of key species and difficulty rebuilding those stocks.

But Maine’s groundfishermen had a stronger year than most in 2023, according to state data released earlier this month. The catch of haddock more than doubled to more than 500,000 pounds (226,796 kilograms), and the catches of Atlantic cod, witch flounder and Atlantic halibut were all up significantly.

The increase in catch, as well as a more stable price, reflects investments the state made in critical infrastructure such as the Portland Fish Exchange, an auction house, said Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The state received COVID-19 relief funds via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for that work and other improvements, he said.

Federal money also supported the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program, which buys fish to support food banks and schools.

“It’s important work and a positive story; fishermen were able to keep working, critical infrastructure has been maintained, and fresh, healthy Maine seafood went to schools and families in need,” Keliher said in a statement.

Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, an industry nonprofit group, launched the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program in part to help the groundfish industry survive the COVID-19 pandemic. The program began with a goal of donating 100,000 meals and is now over 1.3 million, said Ben Martens, executive director of the association.

The success of the program has helped buoy the groundfish industry through a challenging time, Martens said.

“What we have been able to do is provide a little bit of stability on the market side with Fishermen Feeding Mainers,” Martens said. “We are connecting these fishermen and these fish into our food system.”

The long-term trends for the American groundfish industry are still dire. The nationwide catch of Atlantic cod has fallen from more than 28 million pounds (12.7 million kilograms) in 2002 to just over a million pounds (453,592 kilograms) in 2022.

The industry must contend with warming oceans, changing ecosystems, tight fishing quotas and foreign competition in the marketplace. As American catch of cod and haddock have fallen, imports from countries such as Iceland and Norway have become more common in U.S. fish markets.

Whittle is an Associated Press reporter based in Portland, Maine. He focuses on the environment and oceans.