Remarkable People: Monique Coombs, Orrs Island

First published in Landings, May, 2013.

Monique Coombs can sum up her work in the Maine fishing industry in six words:  “Eat local seafood. Support commercial fishermen.”  The 32-year-old energetic Orrs Island resident is a lobsterman’s wife, mother of two, proud community member and fishermen’s activist. Coombs founded Lobsters on the Fly in 2008, an organization working along the coast of Maine to promote local seafood in innovative, grassroots ways.

Monique Coombs sorting tuna guts after the annual Casco Bay Tuna Club tournament in July. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

Monique Coombs sorting tuna guts after the annual Casco Bay Tuna Club tournament in July. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

“Lobsters on the Fly aims to enhance the relationships between fishermen, fishing communities and consumers,” Coombs explained. “We achieve our objectives by teaching cooking classes, participating in local food system conversations, on-line media, conducting speaking engagements and other projects.” Its Web site (www.lobstersonthefly.org) features Coombs’ commentary on a variety of topics related to seafood, local foods, and her life on Orrs Island.

Coombs is also the co-coordinator of the Eat Local Foods Coalition in Maine and chair of the Maine Seafood Marketing Network.  She serves on the steering committee of Localcatch.org and as a board member of the Casco Bay Tuna Club, which hosts the state’s oldest fishing tournament during the last week of July.

Currently Coombs is consulting for the Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC) in Stonington, reaching out to those involved in all aspects of the seafood industry. “Monique has moved into an important role in Maine’s fishing industry,” said Robin Alden, executive director of PERC.  “She is inclusive, smart and perceptive and cares passionately about local marketing and helping the food system work better for everyone from fishermen to consumers.”

Coombs attended high school at North Yarmouth Academy then went on to Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. She became interested in promoting Maine’s fishing industry for several reasons. “I think there are some very serious myths in the media and our society about the fishing industry that are hurtful to fishermen and I’m very passionate about local food,” Coombs explained.

Her involvement began with a simple seafood cookbook that she produced, published and sold. She then donated the cookbook’s proceeds to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

After that initial endeavor, Coombs wanted to do more.  “A farmer friend of mine and I had coffee one day and I told her I wanted seafood to be more prominent in the local food movement. She said something like, ‘So do it,’” Coombs said with a laugh.  After starting Lobsters on the Fly, Coombs turned to creating the Maine Seafood Marketing Network, a collaboration of individuals and organizations in the fishing industry working to support the marketing of Maine’s seafood. “It’s been pretty successful. We [the members] have all come to the conclusion that it is most helpful when we keep it simple so we meet once every other month to update each other on our projects and those who want to can collaborate. It’s been a really great way to get to know people in the industry,” said Coombs.

Monique Coombs and her daughter try a little mackeral fishing during the summer months. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

Monique Coombs and her daughter try a little mackeral fishing during the summer months. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

Coombs is in an unusual position when it comes to promoting her causes because she has the benefit of seeing things through the eyes of a consumer, a coastal resident and as an insider directly involved through her own fishing family.  “Every time I make a decision or think about what I am going to say or do I try to come at it from the perspective of ‘how is this going to affect my community?’ I know firsthand what it’s like when someone talks about losing traps, not being able to go out fishing, low prices for the catch, high prices for bait and fuel because this is what we talk about at the dinner table, not how we can change it but how it’s going to affect how we can pay our bills,” she explained.

Sam Grimly, project manager in the Sustainable Seafood Program at GMRI thinks highly of Coombs’ efforts. “Monique possesses a strong knowledge of all things seafood, ranging from supply chain nuances to fishing practices and policies. Her work is driven out of her genuine care for Maine’s coastal communities and fisheries.” Togue Brawn, owner and president of Maine Dayboat Scallops, agreed. “Coombs seeks out problems in order to solve them, and often turns those problems into opportunities. She believes anything can be accomplished with enough drive and passion, and she shows that to be the case,” Brawn said. “She is always trying to promote something that will be good for the whole fishing industry and the whole local food growers too. She has the best of intentions and works hard,” said Bailey Island lobsterman Glenn Rogers.

Coombs has even more projects that she is contemplating for the future. “My husband and I are interested in oyster farming,” she explained. “I’d like to get to a place where seafood is just part of the [food] system and keep working in local foods. Plus I’d like to do more harvesting work either on the water or in the garden,” she said. Coombs feels that in time these future aspirations will become a reality and for now she is content.  “I’m doing what I love right now, where I love to be, with lots of people that I love. I think I might be doing my long-term goal right now,” she said.