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70 Years of MLA Leadership Shapes the Maine Lobster Industry

For 70 years, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has shaped the fishery that lobstermen know today. Fishermen have done this, working to keep lobstering as a fishery that works in communities all along the coast. The Maine lobster fishery is one of the healthiest community fisheries in the world. This success is worth celebrating.


For 70 years the MLA has ensured a sustainable fishery for lobstering families throughout the coast.

C. Clegg photo.


Two months ago, I chronicled major achievements of the MLA’s history. No oil refinery in Eastport. Crewmen are self-employed, not employees. Sales tax refunds on equipment. V-notch and the oversize measure are the rule from here to North Carolina. No landing dragger or gillnet-caught lobsters by Maine fishermen and restrictive limits elsewhere. Lobstermen are owner-operators of their businesses. Entry into the fishery is controlled by apprenticeship, not money. Lobstermen can set their own zone’s in/out ratio. Within caps, they can also set their own trap limits and times of fishing if they want.

None of this has happened easily. The MLA’s leadership has coaxed out these wins with a clear vision about what is important to the thousands of fishermen who pride themselves in having the freedom to go lobstering on their own terms. The MLA has pursued this with tenacity, holding ground. But success hasn’t come from just bulling. The MLA has been skillful: listening, being trustworthy, and being willing to work with, not just against, to get things done ashore.

Board Leadership


The MLA Board of Directors, 100% commercial lobstermen, is at the heart of the MLA’s effectiveness. It is why the association has successfully supported the whole industry — large and small, eastern, midcoast, and southern — for 70 years. The board is the boss, say board members past and present, made up of people who are smart, get along with people, and are highly respected in their community.


Leadership isn’t easy. Month after month, members have to work out their differences, strategize how to convince regulators or politicians, and face fishermen at home who see things their own way.

One harbor’s perspective is probably not shared coastwide. One area may be getting four pounds per trap. Another, just one pound. Fishing in the tide off Lubec is completely different than fishing the shipping channel off Portland Harbor. Some zones have lots of offshore area; one is right up against the Canadian line. There are bay fishermen and offshore fishermen, and nothing is quite like the narrow guts of the mid-coast. As one board member said, “You may come in full of piss and vinegar, but other lobstermen have other ideas, also for good reasons.”

Over the years, the MLA board has hashed out the association’s positions. Board members, the president, and staff have trusted each other and spoken with one voice. Dave Cousens, president from 1991-2018, said that during his tenure the board members “brought respect to the table.” Board members were friends, despite their differences. As heated as an argument would get, mutual respect meant that you could still have a beer together when the meeting was done.

He added, “You have to have leadership. You can’t have consensus in fishery management. You have to have leadership, make decisions — do what’s best for the industry with an eye toward the future.” He could have added: and not everyone will like it at the time.


Values


The MLA’s values have remained consistent through the years. Ossie Beal, president from 1967-1974, said his goal was to make the Maine fishing industry “the best thing there is on the coast.”

“The board has always worked for what’s best for the industry,” Dave Cousens said. “Not best for individuals, not for an island or an area. We were always about being fair and equitable.” The late Arnie Gamage from South Bristol and retired board member Dwight Carver always kept the board focused on keeping lobstering open for successive generations, he added.

Kristan Porter, current MLA President, said, “It’s all about towns and communities and the future of the fishery. You can’t have that if you throw certain parts of the industry under the bus.” He said that could have happened very easily when the Take Reduction Team (TRT) process for the whale rules proposed to shut down eastern Maine fishermen in Zone A during the summer.

Patrice McCarron, MLA’s previous executive director since 2001 and current Policy Director, said, “The MLA has a board of fishermen. For me, the board has been the inspiration. When we meet every month, I am reminded just how much our work matters. They believe in it.”


Staff Smarts


But, of course, the disagreements aren’t just among lobstermen. The MLA has also navigated the complexities of the shoreside world with diplomacy, strategy, straight facts, and science, working with the many groups that have a say in fishery issues.


Since 1979, the association has been willing to pay for staff to do this homework, inform the board, and go to so many meetings. First, Eddie, then Pat, then Patrice and the larger staff she built. Staff — and good attorneys — have become ever more important as the arenas have changed from the state legislature and Congress to working with scientists, federal regulatory agencies and the courts.

Dave said, “Patrice professionalized us to a whole new level.” Nowhere is that clearer than in the scientific and legal team assembled to fight the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Washington D.C. District Court.

Kristan summed it up. “If you go to court, you go in to win. If I buy traps, I’ll buy the best. It’s the same thing for science or legal advice. Patrice is awesome, sorting out what is needed.”


Waypoints


It’s hard to imagine the forces that Eddie Blackmore was bucking when he donned his suit coat and drove his used, older-model Cadillac, a concession to the thousands of miles he drove from his home in Stonington to Augusta and Massachusetts, where he was a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. He was fighting for Maine’s common sense rules in the first federal lobster management plan that was developed in the late 1970s and published in 1983 after the 200-mile limit came into force. He was not in friendly territory. Lobstermen on Cape Cod, offshore, and south of the Cape were dead set against any V-notch. NMFS and state lobster scientists were too.


Eddie Blackmore.


But Eddie was dogged. He built relationships over years, and he communicated: “We may not know what the mortality is from V-notching, but we damn sure know what it is when we throw them in the pot.”

And he came in the back door to change the science, championing the MLA’s own V-notch survey to prove that large, V-notched eggers were out there. His efforts brought V-notching into the mainstream of both science and management where it is now accepted as a key part of how and why the lobster population is healthy.


Trap Limits, Dragging and Science


On a dripping, sweltering June day in Augusta, Pat White and Dave Cousens weren’t out to haul. It was the very last day of the 117th legislative session (1995), and the big lobster bill that would set a trap limit, control entry, and set up the zones was about to be voted on in the House. Pat, Dave, MLA board members, and other lobstermen were working the crowded halls of the Maine legislature, Dave’s commanding voice turning heads and making it easy to start conversations with legislators.


Dave Cousens.


The bill passed, fending off a federal approach to limited entry and trap limits. It wasn’t everything the MLA wanted. They and many others had worked for months to craft something that could pass to stave off the federal government from controlling management of the lobster fishery, no small feat given that the Casco Bay legislators were hearing “no trap limits” from the large-gang fishermen and the Downeast legislators were hearing that lobstermen didn’t want any limits at all, certainly not on entry. The result was creation of the state’s seven lobster zones, giving zone councils authority to respond to local priorities and apprenticeship-based entry that would let young people into the fishery.


The next major challenge was to stop dragging and gillnetting for lobsters. Dave and Pat and many members fought for Maine’s tough rules in the state legislature every session. But even Pat, representing lobstermen on the New England Council with his superb diplomatic skills, couldn’t budge the draggers, gillnetters, other states, or NMFS on the subject. Refusing to give up, the MLA took the issue to the U.S. Senate where Senator Olympia Snowe added an amendment to the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Snowe Amendment limited non-trap caught lobsters to 100 lobsters/day and a maximum of 500 lobsters/trip. The MLA wanted a total ban and were definitely not happy with the numbers, but it was nevertheless a major victory to get limits in place. As Dave said, “We could live with it.”

Science was the next leadership challenge. Lobstermen didn’t trust scientists or their results and membership was divided. “We decided to work with science, not against it,” Dave explained. Scientist Bob Steneck at the University of Maine was studying lobster and wanted to learn from fishermen. “I invited Bob Steneck and his grad students to many board meetings, and said we need to work with them.”

The successful cooperation with scientists led to broadened respect for lobstermen and clout for the fishery in many arenas. Even more important, it reshaped the science that is used to assess and manage the lobster stock, transforming DMR’s lobster science programs and opening the world of science to participation by lobstermen.

Whales, Whales


By 2001, Patrice McCarron was the MLA’s executive director. She hit the ground running tackling the right whale issue, which has been center stage ever since: Take Reduction Team meetings, New England Fishery Management Council meetings, dealing with unusual right whale mortality events, risk reduction, computer models, Biological Opinions, trawling up requirements.


Patrice McCarron.


At the same time, there were many other important issues to address. She has kept MLA deeply involved in protecting working waterfront, restricting pesticide spraying, starting an International Lobstermen’s Exchange and a leadership program for Maine lobstermen, organizing a two-year business diversification program for lobstermen, helping fishermen sign up for health insurance, increasing funding for the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, and working on both bait supply and bait safety, to name just a few.


It all came to a head, though, in 2019 when NMFS was developing its “decision support tool” to assess the risk posed by lobster gear to right whales. “When I got home from the TRT meeting, I knew the model didn’t make sense,” Patrice recalled. “I locked myself in a closet for three months. All I could do was go back through the data. I knew the government was wrong. I went through every report, every whale, every mortality.” Based on conclusions drawn from her careful review of existing data on whale injuries and mortalities, the industry finally knew which gear or fishery was involved. The MLA could definitively say there had never been a right whale death in Maine lobster gear and there was no documented entanglement in nearly 20 years. Armed with data, the MLA board withdrew its support for NMFS’s risk reduction goal.

When the Biological Opinion dropped in 2021 stating that the lobster industry must reduce risk by 98% to stay in business, the MLA was ready. For three years the MLA threw everything it had at preventing the shutdown of the lobster fishery. The association quickly assembled a team of lawyers and scientists to challenge NMFS’s Biological Opinion and whale rules. By September of that year, the MLA boldly sued the federal government, carefully crafting its arguments to take its case all the way through the appeals process and beyond, if necessary. When the MLA lost its case in September 2022, it immediately filed an appeal and recruited the nation’s most talented appeal attorney, Paul Clement.

As a result of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the industry would also face a debilitating 90% risk reduction in 2024. The MLA swiftly turned its attention to Congress while the legal case made its way through the courts, playing a critical role in securing a six-year pause in federal whale regulations. In June 2023, the MLA won a historic legal victory, changing the interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. No longer would the government be able to use worst case scenarios in regulating the lobster fishery, saving the fishery from devastating regulations.

The Next 70 Years


During the next decades, the need for the MLA’s leadership remains urgent. Right whale protection efforts aren’t going away. How will lobstering evolve and still stay the diverse, community-based fishery MLA has fought for? It will take vision, willingness and steadfast leadership to look at problems square in the eye.

The lobster population is far larger than it was 70 years ago, but the Gulf of Maine is less stable ecologically. Unpredictable changes lie ahead as its waters warm and new species benefit, whether they be sea squirts or blue crabs. The lobster industry, and its harvesting practices, must adapt to these changes to ensure that the both the industry and the lobster population weather this.


The fishermen who rise to be the future MLA leadership have the footsteps of the strong leaders who came before them to follow, to continue to stand up for the long-term health of the resource and all Maine lobstermen, so that their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, will have the opportunity to wake early, steam out in their own boat, see the sunrise, and put the check in the cupboard, even if it be a virtual check.

Robin Alden is retired Founding Director of Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. She founded Commercial Fisheries News and co-founded the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. She was Commissioner of Marine Resources in the mid-1990s.

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