Maine’s lobstermen caught in a vicious two-pronged assault

Maine lobstermen are in a world of hurt, caught in a two-pronged assault on their livelihood. The pincer claw is the pandemic, causing their market to collapse. The crusher claw? That would be the latest lawsuit over whale rules.

The coronavirus pandemic is no small problem. A major domestic market, at least in Maine, is restaurants and they will certainly be serving fewer dinners this season. Social distancing requirements for restaurants that open will have a bigger impact than weather, gas prices or any of the other vagaries of tourist season.

On top of automobile-based tourism, which represents the majority of visitors to the Maine coast, the suspension of cruise ship visitation, a significant lobster market, also hits hard. Trade war tariffs, freight costs and flight availability have already caused international sales to drop off, particularly to China. Canada has picked up the slack. Yes, we cook lobster at home, but not in a quantity that makes a dent on landings.

Even the elders in the fishing community are rattled. They are usually the ones who face fluctuations in the market with Zen-like calm. It’s been down before, they say, and it will come back. Every year is not going to be a record-breaker. This time they’re worried. Younger fishermen who have gotten accustomed to record catches every year have taken on significant debt (bigger boats, newer trucks) and are freaking out.

A few boats are fishing now, but most fishermen are conserving money they would spend on bait and fuel while they have little or no market. The state Department of Marine Resources is urging fishermen not to bring product ashore if they can’t sell it.

Lobster fishermen might have been eligible for funds through the Payroll Protection Program but before they figured out the details and how to apply, the money was gone. A more recent round of funding provided $20 million to be distributed to fishermen, seafood dealers and other segments of the industry, but that is unlikely to provide adequate support for a half-billion-dollar industry.

Now whale rules, the crusher claw of lobstering, are heating up. The history of endangered right whale protection is far too complex to describe in anything less than a doctoral thesis. The short story is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked out a set of rules with which lobstermen, albeit reluctantly, agreed to comply, and those rules are being challenged as inadequate.

Mind you, putting it like that in no way reflects the countless hours that fishermen invested in research and meetings, meetings, meetings. The bottom line for the Maine fishery is that there is little evidence that right whales ever show up in Maine lobster fishing grounds and no documented instances of Maine lobster fishing gear ever killing or seriously injuring a right whale. Nevertheless, enormous sums of money and effort have been spent by fishermen to swap out their gear for what is allegedly more whale-friendly.

After all that, a lawsuit has been filed to further restrict, if not eliminate, the lobster fishery. In April, a U.S. District Court judge filed an order claiming lobstering violates the Endangered Species Act. This is an existential crisis for the lobster fishery, and for communities all along the Maine coast, particularly Downeast, where lobstering and the commercial activity that supports it, from bait to banks to boatbuilding, is pretty much all there is to the economy.

It is easy for “conservationists” to write off fishermen as rapacious pirates out to harvest every last fish from the sea. One should refrain from making that judgement unless he has spent a day, or better yet a month, on the deck of a lobster boat.

Lobstermen have an appreciation for the sea and all the creatures that dwell therein. The tiniest changes in the marine environment are noticed and pondered. Other than legal-sized lobster, anything that comes up in a trap is carefully returned to the sea. The thick of head do not survive long on the water. Lobstermen respect and appreciate the power of the ocean, the variety and complexity of ocean life and the beauty that surrounds them every day on the water.

For decades, lobstermen have put substantial effort into preserving the species that is their livelihood and doing no harm to the ecosystem in which they live. The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) understands and respects that. Other than the Maine delegation itself, the federal government is more likely to respond to lobbyist pressure than to the wisdom of the men and women who have spent their lives on the water.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has established a Legal Defense Fund to protect the fishery and is the only organization in Maine granted intervenor status in the current lawsuit. Donating the cost of a lobster dinner would help a lot.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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