Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 27, 2015 and The Weekly Packet, August 27, 2015
Business owner, fisherman and advocate
Virginia Olsen says aquaculture is in her DNA
by Jessica Brophy
Virginia Olsen used to tell her mother she wasn’t going to marry a fisherman, or live on Deer Isle. But somehow, it happened just the same.
“I’ve been happily married to a fisherman for 21 years,” says Olsen. “I’m proud to call the island home, and we’ve worked together in the fishing industry one way or the other most of that time.”
Involvement in the commercial fisheries felt inevitable to Olsen, despite her protests. “I come from a fishing family, so I think it’s in the DNA,” she explained.
For the past 15 years, Olsen and her husband Blaine have run Oceanville Seafood, purchasing soft shell clams from independent harvesters. Olsen has been closely involved with the island’s local shellfish ordinance, which exists to help keep the resource sustainable.
“I volunteered for a few years, learning many, many things from Kathleen Billings,” said Olsen about the Deer Isle-Stonington Shellfish Committee. “In more ways than one, she was my mentor.”
Billings and Olsen became members of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Shellfish Advisory Council, and Olsen went on to chair the committee and become a member of the DMR’s Advisory Council.
“Regulations are needed and should be in place to protect our resources and public health, but sometimes they miss the mark,” said Olsen. “It’s not intentional, it just happens. They can have the best intentions, but those working in the industry as harvesters and fishermen know what is practical, what can actually be implemented in everyday work, not on paper.”
Olsen said she found the only way to affect change was to become part of the process, sometimes at the federal level. Olsen spent more than a decade as part of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, participating in modifying and updating shellfish regulations for all states.
“That was such a learning experience! I was able to make changes to help Maine keep traditional harvesting practices, put off changes that didn’t apply to us because our harvesting is so different than other parts of the U.S.,” said Olsen.
Olsen’s involvement doesn’t end there. She has been involved with the Stonington Fisheries Alliance and has served as a school board member. She is currently involved in the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, the Maine Seafood Alliance and the Maine Lobstering Union (IMLU).
“I keep going to Augusta, across the U.S., or answer the hour-long conference call because it’s all for the greater good,” said Olsen. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Olsen was recently elected secretary and treasurer of the IMLU.
“I believe this is a unique opportunity for the fishermen to work with one another statewide. Never has there been an organization of only fishermen and sternmen,” she said. “[IMLU is] a group that can prioritize their wants and needs while keeping an eye on the very laws that can help us or cripple us.”
She wants to see her son and those who follow have a healthy fishery. “If [my son’s] children want to do this like their dad and their granddad and four more generations back, then someone has to be there to make sure they have an industry and access to it.”
Currently, Olsen is participating in the apprentice program, working toward a lobster license. “It has been such a change,” she said. “I juggle things a little different. We no longer shuck clams—we just buy and sell them in the shell. It was a tough choice. The restaurants and takeouts we have supplied shucked clams to for years were very disappointed; many have become like family. But I was ready for a new adventure.”
Olsen fishes as sternman on her husband’s boat, and says she’s learned much about herself, but also about her son. “My son would tell me while he was in school how much it pained him to stop fishing at the end of the summer to go back to school. He would describe it as an intense hurt, down deep in his soul,” she said. “I never truly understood that until I started going myself, [feeling] a pull to the sea and a longing to get back.”
Looking forward and reflecting on the industry, Olsen says she hopes the fisheries remain “strong and sustainable,” and accessible—especially to area youth. She also hopes harvesters take active roles in fisheries management.
“We can all play an important part,” she said. “It’s important we keep our island a fishing community and not just another tourist town.”