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March 1, 2002

Dana Rice, Birch Harbor: A respect for the past, an eye toward the future

by Sandra Dinsmore

The things that produce leaders, that cause them to do the things they do, are not always obvious. In Dana Rice's case, only those who've known him since he was a child would have any inkling of what drives him, and even then they might not realize that those formative factors were what most would consider disadvantages.

In the first place, he considers himself fortunate to have been raised by his grandparents. He grew up absorbing the values of an earlier generation, and it's those values he credits for making him the man he is.

His grandfather was a fisherman, one of a long line that goes back as far as there's been a fishery. His great-great grandfather built the shingled house in Birch Harbor in which Rice, now 55, grew up and raised his four children with Barbara, his wife of 37 years.

His first memory of fishing was of helping to tend a herring weir at Jonesport in summer when he was three or four. The sardine boats would come in, and he fell in love with them and the fishery, a love affair that has lasted to this day. He started fishing with his grandfather, he says, "tagging along behind him at about age seven."

A respect for the past, an eye toward the future

Because Rice was raised by his grandfather, an outgoing man who had lots of friends and who was known up and down the coast, he says he came in contact with an older generation, an experience his young friends missed. "The fishing community has a lot of the old values and principles," he says. "There's a whole generation of people that aren't getting that."

In every person of accomplishment there's often some period of loneliness or hardship that sets him or her apart and gives him a different view of life. In Rice's case, it was caused by polio.

"At eleven years old you're not ready to be in polio pain," he says. The fever passed but left him unable to walk. "I was feeling pretty lousy and blue," he recalls. He spent the next six months in Bath, at the Hyde Rehabilitation Center. It didn't take long after arriving to learn a valuable lesson. He saw 25-year-olds in iron lungs and people who would spend the rest of their lives in wheelchairs. "I walked out of there," he says. "That put things in perspective, right there."

For a year after his recovery, Rice's grandmother didn't let him do much. He lost a year of school. Before long, however, he was back fishing, and quit school after his freshman year to fish full-time. His grandfather, who recognized that Rice wasn't getting anything from his studies, helped him buy his first boat and gang of traps. The boy spent a lot of time with his grandfather, with his grandfather's brother who went both lobster fishing and fish dragging, and with their friends, whom he calls a great bunch of guys. Along the way, he says, he absorbed the values of that generation, a generation that fished without the luxury of hydraulics and electronics.

He, too, was around fishing boats before there were electronics. Then along came radio with its magic. "You could talk to people clear from Stonington to Jonesport and you heard them talking amongst themselves," he recalls. On Georges Bank, he was able to hear the Gloucester and New Bedford fishermen when the weather was right. "You'd hear the dialect of the Gloucester fishermen," he recalled. "You were more connected even if you were a lobster fisherman who didn't necessarily like draggers. It's a much faster pace now."

Rice has a million stories to illustrate what he's talking about. In reference to shipboard electronics, he tells about an old fisherman named Reggie Alley who worked for Stinson, carrying herring to the sardine factory. Alley had always navigated by means of compass and watch: timing his way from here to there. When newfangled stuff like fathometers and radar came in, Alley asked his boss at Stinson if he could get some for his boat and was rejected.

Eventually, Alley got the equipment, but its advantages were only helpful when it worked. He told Rice, "You'd leave Boothbay at night in thick o' fog and start home. If the radar went out and the radio went out, your heart came right up in your throat, where before, you looked at your watch and ran your time down."

Rice ends that story by quoting one of his favorite sayings: "Traditions make wonderful rudders, but poor anchors." In other words, he says, you can learn from the past, but you can't live in it or be anchored to it. And that's how he lives his life: learning from the older generation, trying to live by their principles, and trying to be what he calls a stand-up guy.

He became involved in fisheries politics (or what he calls "the regulatory process") after witnessing his grandfather and his grandfather's brother's takes on the first time fishermen went on strike for higher pay; from Eddie Blackmore, of the Maine Lobsterman's Association (MLA); and from Junior Backman, who started the Down East Lobsterman's Association. "They stood up for the business," he says, "so I stood up and started asking questions. One thing leads to another."

"Another," in Dana's case, is a lot of committees Dana's on, as he tries to stand up for his industry and his way of living. He's chairman of the board of selectmen for Gouldsboro, harbormaster for the town of Gouldsboro, on the Board of Advisers for the Lobster Institute, a member of the MLA and the Down East Lobsterman's Association (DELA), a member of the Import/Export Dealers Association, a representative to the Lobster Conservation Management Team, and a member of the Lobster Advisory Council, along with a couple more committees.

He explains his philosophy simply by saying that he's been fortunate to be part of the fishing industry on a lot of levels. The only reason he's on all those committees, he says, is because he's trying to be the kind of stand-up guy his grandfather, Junior Backman, and Eddie Blackmore exemplified.

He has great admiration for Blackmore, a lobsterman from Stonington. "Eddie Blackmore worked very hard and was a very smart guy," he says. "You've got to give him top billing." Rice has never forgotten one piece advice from Blackmore: "No matter how mad you get, how infuriated," he recalls Blackmore telling him, "whatever you do, don't pick up your bat and ball and go home. Come back the next day no matter how shitty you look today. That's what they want."

Dana believes that although you can always find ways to disagree, there's always something you can agree on, and it's that something that you can build on. That philosophy and attitude has earned him the respect of his peers, not just in Maine, but throughout the fishing industry. He learned from the generation before him, and he'd like to see more involvement in the regulatory process from the younger generation.

"There are quite a bunch of Dana Rices around: 55 or 60 years old," he says. "To maintain the things that I appreciate in this fishing industry or to keep them, it's going to take a continual involvement.

"You know," he observes, "it's pretty easy to stay at your wharf in your own little harbor and say what's wrong with the industry. But," he says, "you get involved in the regulatory process and you find out it isn't that easy. Some of the people you were very upset with, they work very hard. There's always a compromise."

There's a price to pay for participating in fisheries politics beyond the time lost fishing or being with family. "You get involved at that level and people begin to think you've sold them out," he says, adding, "but if you don't lose your temper and you explain this is why you did it, they understand or at least they'll consider it. It's all a matter of talking to each other."

All Rice's regulatory commitments don't feed his family; therefore, he has carved out one busy life for himself. He's managed to dovetail three aspects of the fishing industry into a career. He's been buying lobsters at Bunker's Harbor for 15 years, a business he got into thinking his three sons might come along and help him with. It hasn't quite worked out that way, but all three are in the fishing industry and one helps him at the wharf -- which allows him, in summer, to get back in the herring business he so loves and which allows him to supply herring to his lobstermen. He also has had a long-standing involvement with a commercial lobster pound and is actively engaged with a lobster pound being rebuilt for lobster research.

One of the joys of his life, beyond his wife and family, is his sardine carrier, the JACOB PIKE, which he bought five years ago. She's one of the last three or four sardine carriers left in Maine, built by Newbert & Wallace in South Thomaston about 1947, the year Rice was born.

"She has wonderful lines," he says. "She's got a lot of history and a lot of people on the coast of Maine know her. Wherever you go, the old guys will come and they recognize her and want to tell you a story. There's something about her. Even if there are tourists around and they don't appreciate boats, they sort of gravitate to her. They want to ask questions. She was a great boat in her day, and she still is."

When you consider all the things Rice manages to crowd into his life, you realize that many of them have to do with his effort to be a stand-up guy.

"The people that I respected left an industry intact and open for me and my children to go fishing, and no one in my generation has any right not to leave it open for fishing," he explains. "Not necessarily open," he says, "but the Gulf of Maine is one of the last places on the planet that hasn't gone to a completely regulated fishery where the independent guy goes away and corporate America goes fishing."

Other than the waters off undeveloped countries, he notes that unregulated fisheries are a thing of the past. He's afraid fisheries regulation leads to quotas and from there to Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), where "the big guy buys up the quotas and the little guy gets pushed out of the fishery. That kind of thing," he says, "we don't need."

Because he hopes to keep that sort of thing out and because of the way he was raised and the people he looked up to over the years, he says, "That's why you'll find me in some of those places. I believe it's my responsibility to make sure that this industry remains open and free. At least you don't have to buy your way into the fishery. That industry was passed on to me, and more than an industry, it's a way of life."

click to enlargeDana Rice
Dana Rice Sandra Dinsmore

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