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Lobster, Tourism Sustain the MidCoast Maine Economy

The lobster fishery is integrated into the fabric of the Maine coast, giving its small towns and harbors a firm economic and cultural foundation. This wasn’t always true. Once Maine fishermen moved among fisheries based on the season of the year: lobster in the summer and fall, scallops and shrimp in the winter, halibut in the spring, herring in the summer, clam digging year-round. But those options have shrunk and, in some cases such as northern shrimp, vanished entirely. The coast of Maine is in a “gilded trap,” as lobster biologist Robert Steneck wrote in 2011, largely dependent on one lucrative species, the American lobster.

How important is the lobster fishery to the Maine coast? What will be the economic impact of a reduction in the harvest due to regulations or to a changing Gulf of Maine? We continue our three-part series with a look at Midcoast Maine.

A tranquil sunset off Spruce Head Island, Maine, where nearly $35 million worth of lobster was landed in a year. Photo courtesy of DownEast Magazine.

Walk the streets of Rockland and there’s little to suggest the economic clout of the lobster fishery in Knox County. Once called "Lobster Capital of the World," now billed as Maine’s “Art Capital,” Rockland features the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Maine Center for Contemporary Art, and a bevy of restaurants, art galleries, and shops. In the summer months (pre-pandemic) out-of-state vehicles vie for parking spots, line up for the Vinalhaven and North Haven ferries, and dot the parking lots of the city’s B&Bs and hotels. Sailboats hang on moorings in the harbor and vacationers walk along the adjacent boardwalk, admiring the view.

Ten minutes south of town lies tiny Spruce Head Island. Linked to South Thomaston by a small bridge, Spruce Head’s one paved road leads down to the water, past clusters of year-round and summer homes. Jammed next to each other on the island’s west side sit a lobster co-operative, Atwood’s lobster company, and McLoon’s wharf and lobster shack. In the summer, the narrow road grows crowded with tourists hungry for lobster rolls, refrigerated trucks jostling up to the wharves, and lobstermen’s trucks searching for a place to park. To the casual observer, it’s hard to believe that lobstermen operating out of Spruce Head harvested nearly eight million pounds of lobster in 2020, valued at close to $35 million, according to Department of Marine Resources (DMR) data. Those dollars were quickly spent at local businesses in Rockland and other towns of the Midcoast.

Tom Peaco, executive director of Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce

And that is the nature of Midcoast Maine: a constantly changing dance between the tourism industry and the lobster fishery. “The lobster fishery is part of the fabric of our region,” acknowledged Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It’s hard to separate the two.”

The Maine Office of Tourism understands this connection well. The Office produces The Maine Quarterly, a glossy online magazine promoting the state through its food, outdoors, and culture. Not an issue goes by without an article referencing Maine’s commercial fisheries — the people, the harbors, the boats and the traditions. The coast of Maine sells, and a recognized part of that allure is the lobster fishery.

“It’s hard to measure of the fishery, but it’s very significant,” Peaco said. “You can see how much tourism lobster draws. People come here looking for it. This region has a positive reputation as a hub for lobster fishing.”

In recent years, however, Knox County, once the leader in lobster landings along the coast, has moved to second place, trailing Hancock County. While lobster landings increased steadily in Knox county in the previous decades and have not faltered, lobster landings in both Hancock and Washington counties surged steadily upward in the past decade.

This reflects a shift of the location of the peak lobster abundance in response to warming ocean temperatures (seechart). Still, the volume of lobster being landed in Vinalhaven and smaller Knox County harbors such as Spruce Head remains high.

Sam Belknap, senior community development officer at the Island Institute

“If you look at landings, the increase is in Downeast Maine. There’s been no significant drop in the Midcoast,” said Sam Belknap, senior community development officer at the Island Institute in Rockland. “The long-term effects of climate change and regulatory issues are more cause for immediate concern.”

Lobstermen are aware that their environment is changing. Many are venturing into other ocean-based businesses as a hedge against a long anticipated downward shift in landings, ventures for which Belknap provides assistance. “The lobster fishery is the key to providing the infrastructure for folks to branch out into kelp or oyster farming as secondary businesses,” he explained. “Without the fishing infrastructure in place, it would be a challenge to get into the sector.”

Belknap also recognizes that the lobster fishery helps boost tourism, both in the Midcoast and throughout the coast. “Lobstering is the core and essence of the cultural heritage that draws people here. They want to experience the sense of community in a fishing harbor,” he said. The key is to continue to support lobstermen and their towns by protecting working waterfront properties and ensuring adequate access to the ocean. “Commercial fishing involves capital and time and investment,” he said.

The balance between lobstering as a way of life and tourism continues to be a delicate one, according to Peaco. “Lobstering has a major effect on the local economy. It ripples to the car dealers, the grocery stores, everything. Lobstermen are making purchases locally. We all thrive by their success,” he said.

In Thomaston, Brooks Trap Mill sprawls across several acres of land. The company, begun as a trap stock mill in 1946, provides commercial fishing and aquaculture products at seven locations in Maine and Rhode Island.

Stephen Brooks, co-owner Brooks Trap Mill

Stephen Brooks, co-owner of the company, sounded anxious during a January telephone conversation. Since the pandemic began, they have struggled to find enough workers and adequate supplies to meet the many trap and supply orders coming in. Before the pandemic, Brooks Trap Mill employed more than 100 local people as well as an additional 30 to 50 individual subcontractors. Currently nearly 40 openings at the company remain unfilled.

While Brooks Trap has diversified its products over the years, branching out into aquaculture supplies and other items, approximately 70% of the company’s revenue comes from lobstermen. “If lobster-related sales really dropped off, we would have to cut our overhead as quickly as possible. That means employees, inventory, possibly locations,” Brooks said.

The company’s customers come from throughout the coast, many second or third generation patrons. Brooks finds it hard to believe that a fishery so long tied to his family’s business and to Maine’s culture could ultimately disappear. “Can you imagine what the state of Maine would look like with no lobstering? Think of the money lobstermen bring in. Can you imagine the impact to the state?” he said.

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