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Lobstermen Face Uncertain Future Together

You hear it often among fishermen on Maine’s commercial wharves: “Livin’ the life.” It’s the all-encompassing laconic answer to everything from “How are you?” to “How’d you do yesterday?”

Photo by Sherry Tucker.

Right now Maine lobstermen are living lives jam-packed with anxiety. The aggressive push by Governor Janet Mills to develop federal waters off southern Maine for a large wind turbine farm; the accelerated schedule for construction of a 12-MW floating wind turbine three miles southeast of Monhegan Island; and implementation later this month of NOAA’s new regulations regarding right whales, which may include closure of a large fishing area in Lobster Management Area 1 in concert with a ten-year conservation plan for the region included in NOAA’s Biological Opinion are enough to keep any fisherman awake at night.

Yet lobstermen are standing up proudly for their livelihoods and the sustainable fishery they have built over the decades. On March 21, a parade of more than 80 lobster boats, some bearing signs proclaiming “Save the Lobstermen, Stop the Mills!” traveled between Monhegan and Boothbay Harbor, tracing the route of a survey vessel hired to determine the undersea electrical cable path for the planned wind turbine. The protest was organized quickly and quietly by area lobstermen to bring attention to both the activities of the survey vessel and lobstermen’s staunch antagonism toward future ocean wind projects.

“It was really cool to see everyone come together like that. I was glad we could all get along on that day,” said Erick Harjula, 31, a Spruce Head lobsterman who participated in the protest. While Harjula does not fish in the area designated for the floating wind turbine, he opposes the project wholeheartedly. “It’s a bad idea. It’s crowded . First thing in the fall it’s like fishing inside,” he said. “And those guys who do fish there will have to go somewhere.”

Some lobstermen don’t agree that offshore wind energy is a truly economical and “green” source of energy to begin with. Lobsterman Johnny McCarthy, 32, of Vinalhaven, is one of them. “I don’t feel that the ocean is a good place for wind turbines. There are too many moving parts, there’s always going to be issues with them because of the salt air or something,” he said. “It’s really foolish to rush into this at this stage of the game. I mean, we don’t even know if we can fish around them. I say stick them on mountains.”

McCarthy, who is looking forward to the launch of his new 45-foot lobster boat, didn’t find out about the March 21 protest until after the fact but was delighted by the turnout. “It was a good peaceful way to keep us at the table. The right to protest is part of our country. It really was something to behold,” he said.

Nick Page, 36, of Boothbay Harbor was lobstering offshore that day but also was impressed by the turnout. “There’s been nothing that big in my memory. In particular that so many lobstermen from different communities turned up,” he said. Page, like many other lobstermen, is concerned that once the Monhegan turbine is up and running, other projects in other parts of the Gulf will blossom quickly. “Once this starts it will just expand. If they get a foot in the door, we will be fighting for generations. The state is moving too quickly on wind. There’s too much going on at once and it is scary for lobstermen,” he said.

Kristin and Nick Page. Photo courtesy of The Boothbay Register.

The notion that the Gulf of Maine is a wide-open area with great swaths unused by fishermen is a notion that lobstermen are constantly fighting against. Fishermen, whether those fishing for lobster, groundfish, scallops or other species, have specific grounds that they return to year after year. Sometimes the use of those grounds moves from parent to child. If a certain area is closed to fishing, those who currently use it will be hard pressed to find new territory open to them, according to Lee Watkinson, 40, a South Thomaston lobsterman. “The government doesn’t understand that guys have fishing grounds. If you close they will be in a pickle. Where are they going to go?” he asked.

Watkinson, however, is more concerned about the looming whale rules, which are due to go into effect on May 31. “The whale stuff could just shut us down. I’m much more nervous about that than wind,” he said. Watkinson feels that NOAA has used statistics about right whales to alarm the public. He noted that a male right whale was found in European waters a few years ago and a calf was sighted off the Canary Islands this year. “The science isn’t there. They need to study more closely. It’s just frustrating. I really don’t know what we are going to do,” he said. Yet as they set their traps in the water this year as they have done for so many decades in the past, and as the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic begin to ease slightly, lobstermen remain hopeful about the new season. Nick Page has additional reason to be optimistic. Earlier this year he and his wife and brother purchased Atlantic Edge Lobster, a buying and processing station in Boothbay Harbor. The company already has numerous orders from Maine restaurants to provide lobster meat this summer. “I am excited,” Page said. “I think we’ll have a strong price, nothing unusual, just a good, steady, normal year. And that’s something lobstermen can look forward to.”

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