Mapping Ocean Stories

Mapping Ocean Stories: Documenting and Sharing Voices from Maine

Abigail Muscat, Maine Sea Grant Intern and Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant Marine Extension Program Leader

Stories are important. Yarns shared in the fish house, updates swapped on the dock, or stories told at the kitchen table all help us remember who we are as a community. Stories remind us how we handled the rough patches, how we persevered through the changes, and what we value about living our lives on the Maine coast. 

The annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum (2/29-3/2, 2024 at the Samoset in Rockland, Maine) is a great place to hear lots of stories, either in the halls, at the trade show, in seminars, or in the pub. One seminar this year, “Amplifying the Voices of Maine’s Fishermen and Fishing Communities through Storytelling” (3/2 at 2:45 PM), will explore what it is about stories that help us connect to our heritage and prepare for the future. This seminar, hosted by the Mapping Ocean Stories project partners, will share insights from oral histories collected throughout Maine’s coastal communities, including some recorded as far back as the 1970’s and as recently as last summer. Forum attendees may recognize themselves in one featured collection, the Voices of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, taped in The First Coast’s Airstream mobile recording studio parked by the Samoset’s side entrance at the 2018 and 2019 Fishermen’s Forums.

Mapping Ocean Stories is a collaboration between The First Coast, Maine Sea Grant, College of the Atlantic (COA), and the Island Institute. The goal of the Mapping Ocean Stories project is to find, collect, archive and share oral histories from coastal community members in Maine. The project seeks to document the voices of Maine fishermen and fishing community members so that the stories of our past are remembered and celebrated. The knowledge of fishermen and fishing community members, aggregated from oral history interviews and historical documents, can help illustrate important issues faced by these industries and the communities they call home.

Students at COA, guided by a team of collaborators, learn how to find, record and process oral stories and sounds, as well as geographic information system (GIS) mapping techniques. Sometimes they work with archival audio. Other times, students travel to coastal communities to conduct interviews with fishermen and others whose lives are tied to the sea. Oral histories capture a wide range of backgrounds and stories, from everyday life in places like Winter Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Deer Isle, and The Cranberry Islands, as well as at events like the Maine Fishermen’s Forum.

Once the team records the stories, they transcribe and share the stories with the public through many multimedia forms, including podcasts, radio shows, Story Maps, and increasingly, other visualization tools. In one early project several years before the pandemic, students created the “Winter Harbor Fisheries Oral History Project” StoryMap. Born out of a collaboration with the Winter Harbor Historical Society, COA students interviewed families that play a role in the local fishing  and maritime industries. A multimedia map was created that takes the listener through seven of the stories captured during this project. Site visitors are transported to Winter Harbor to learn about local fisheries and changes happening in the Gulf of Maine.

Another project, spearheaded by then-COA student and Maine Sea Grant undergraduate scholar Camden Hunt, documents the history of Maine’s sardine industry, from the early 20s to the closure of the last Maine sardine cannery in 2010. These stories take the listener through the process of sardine canning and distribution, highlighting the central role of community in the packing plants and on board the herring fishing vessels.

“I was compelled by the sheer amount of history along this coast, and the lack of documentation for parts of it. I was interested in Mapping Ocean Stories because they were doing that documentation, and I wanted to participate,” said Hunt, who has continued to work with the project since graduation. “I love the work I do because I think I make this history accessible to people who never got to experience many of the keystone features of Maine’s coast. Making that history public allows people who would otherwise not be familiar with important Maine industries (i.e. sardines) to learn and appreciate Maine’s complex history with natural resources.”

Hunt aired his project on Maine Sea Grant’s Coastal Conversations radio program, and it is available in the WERU archives [].

Ela Keegan, another past COA student, collected stories connected to the seaweed industry. Her work with the Mapping Ocean Stories project informed the creation of two Coastal Conversations radio shows, one [] about the life of Maine lobstermen in the 1970s and another [] that compiles stories of fishermen, island residents, municipal officials and more from working waterfronts in Maine and around the country. After Ela graduated, she went on to compile a Mapping Ocean Stories StoryMap collection of more than a dozen student interview and mapping projects through 2022.

Another place to find these stories is Maine Sounds and Story, is a growing database that makes oral histories readily available to the public. Galen Koch, founder of The First Coast, is leading the development of this online resource which aims to preserve both past and living histories. Site visitors can listen to the recordings, and access transcripts of each story. Mapping Ocean Stories students and partners are continually adding the recordings they’ve gathered over the past years from coastal communities and other local initiatives to celebrate community stories.

Together, these projects are striving to amplify the voices of Maine’s coastal communities who are experiencing firsthand the changes occurring in the Gulf of Maine. Input from these communities is vital in addressing social, economic, and environmental concerns. By documenting their stories and experiences in the face of change, Mapping Ocean Stories and Sounds and Story researchers are hoping to create a model for communities to participate in policy-making.

For Camden Hunt, this work is of the utmost importance.

“As I worked more with Mapping Ocean Stories, I discovered many people also fighting to preserve this history before it disappears. I think that these histories are really valued by coastal communities, and in many cases lost history actually forms the base of a community’s identity,” said Hunt. “Both of those are extremely important, especially as Maine’s demographic makeup is changing and new residents may not know the stories of those who walked the same roads a hundred years ago, or even, ten years ago.”

In an exciting newer Mapping Ocean Stories project (and with support from the Maine Community Foundation), project partners are developing methods to visualize spatial information about species distribution and changes in the Gulf of Maine, as gleaned from oral history interviews. Stay tuned for a future blog post sharing updates from this work. In the meantime, you can get a sneak peak in this short article by COA Computer Sciences Professor Laurie Baker: Mapping Ocean Stories – Understanding the Current and Past Uses of Frenchman and Penobscot Bays. And come to the Maine Fishermen’s Forum session to learn more (3/2, 2024 at the Samoset in Rockland, Maine).