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Guest Column: Dark Cloud Headed Our Way Too Soon

Lobster Zone F Council Chair Jeff Putnam fishes from Chebeague Island.

I have always been a naturally optimistic person, looking for the positive in every situation. Ask me what I think the lobster price will be next week and my response usually is “Hopefully it will go up, why wouldn’t it?” But in our line of work, there are harsh realities that even the most upbeat folks have to contend with and adapt to. The market and shipping disruptions following the 9/11 attacks, the financial crisis of 2008 and the early oversupply of lobsters in 2012 have been the biggest challenges to our industry during my time in this business, until recently.

The release of NMFS’s Biological Opinion (Biop) and ten-year conservation plan plus the pending right whale court cases have me questioning what the fishery will look like in five to ten years.

What is there to be positive about when we are facing these draconian measures to protect a species that we simply are not harming? For starters, I was truly impressed with lobstermen during the development of Maine’s plan which incorporated trawling-up scenarios, conservation equivalencies, gear markings, and vertical line weak points. I have been involved in the zone council and Lobster Advisory Council for many years now and to see us be proactive in this manner was encouraging. Many lobstermen volunteered to install rope load testers on their boats to check breaking strength while hauling. We sent in many rope configurations to the DMR lab for break testing. We showed our willingness to adapt to longer trawls for the purpose of reducing endlines and spent countless hours taking red marks out of our lines in exchange for the new purple marks.

Why did we do all of this? Because we wanted to show NMFS and the environmental groups that we were negotiating in good faith, that we care about the right whales and we want to put this behind us. More on their response later.

DMR Commissioner Keliher has been able to effectively communicate the severity of what the lobstering industry is facing to the Governor, Legislature and federal Congressional delegation. The state has committed major financial resources to protect the lobster fishery and is very involved in the court cases. Our federal representatives have urged the President and Commerce Secretary to oppose rules that would harm lobstermen’s livelihoods.

The Save Maine Lobstermen campaign by the MLA collects donations for the Legal Defense Fund so that we have representation in and knowledge of the court cases. This fundraising effort has had an incredibly successful start. I have taken notice of the many people and businesses that have donated to protect the heart of coastal Maine’s economy.

The businesses that donate are the ones that many of us work with every day. The lobstering families that donate understand the importance of this fight for our future. Donations from people who have second-hand ties to the industry are truly appreciated, thank you.

The optimistic me thought that NMFS would be pleased that Maine had gone ahead and done all of the legwork to comply with the risk reduction numbers when it submitted a draft proposal to the whale rule in 2020. Unfortunately, NMFS just took Maine’s plan as starting point and imposed measures in the final whale rule that included a nearly 1000-square-mile closure during a very productive lobstering time. This is not something that we can just adapt to; it is unprecedented in Maine lobstering history.

The closure area does not pass the straight face test. Whales have not been entangled there and there is no data to suggest this is an area with a high co-occurrence of right whales and lobster gear. I am afraid that this is the first step in a plan to close other areas to lobstering, which we all know increases gear density nearby and effectively puts a gear “fence” around the closure area. This is not good faith negotiating on the part of NMFS, it is a heavy-handed approach that shows that there is no interest in working together toward a realistic goal.

The Biop ten-year conservation plan is the dark cloud headed our way on a sunny summer afternoon. Maine lobstermen have been willing to go above and beyond to reduce risk to the right whale. The plan aims for an undue level of risk reduction compared to the risk that we actually present. It is common knowledge that the risk posed by Maine lobster gear pales in comparison to the cruise ship industry or the global cargo shipping industry. It cannot be stated enough that without modifications to the ten-year plan the future of the lobster industry is in grave danger.

What does the future look like for Maine's next generation of lobstermen? Photo courtesy of H. Penney.

For generations Maine lobstermen have been stewards of the lobster resource. We throw back short, V-notched and oversize lobsters for one reason — we want the next generation to have a chance to make a living catching lobsters and continue Maine’s fishing heritage. Lobstermen now have to go outside of our comfort zone and realize that the future doesn’t only depend on a heathy resource, it also depends on us staying engaged in the whale plan and court cases by speaking up and supporting the defense of our fishery.

There was a lot to be pleased with in 2021: the lobster price was fair, landings were solid, and the weather was generally cooperative. I am, as usual, optimistic about the current year and hoping for a continuation of the strong demand for our seafood. I just have to remind myself not to become complacent. We have some seriously still headwinds to steam into coming up.


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