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Maine's Lobstermen, Businesses Breathe a Sigh of Relief

In 2021, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) took a drastic step. The board of directors voted to sue the federal government, specifically the National Marine Fisheries Service, for its ill-founded and deeply flawed Biological Opinion on the lobster fishery and associated ten-year conservation plan. According to the agency, its actions were necessary to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. MLA was not willing to accept NMFS’s conclusion that responsibility for the whales' demise was on the backs of Maine lobstermen. MLA’s review of the data revealed that conclusion was based not on fact but on overly precautionary assumptions. “The MLA knew that there wasn’t much choice. We either sued to stop this plan or our fishery would be gone in a very short time,” Kristan Porter, MLA president, said.

Lobstermen like Scott Hoyt of Kittery breathed a collective sigh of relief after news of the MLA's success spread along the coast. C.Hoyt photo.

No one sues the federal government blithely. You need extremely deep pockets, powerful allies, an exceptional legal team and remarkable perseverance. The MLA, a membership organization founded in 1954, had the final three items. It lacked the first.

The MLA board reached out to its base — the state's lobster industry — for help through its SaveMaineLobstermen campaign. Many contributed during the early launch of the campaign. Individual lobstermen generously donated as much as $5,000, businesses like Colby & Gale and Brooks Trap Mill gave generously. But it was John and Brendan Ready of Ready Seafood in Saco who were the first industry members to step up with a major contribution. The two brothers made two generous donations to the campaign and then hit the road to ask others to do the same.

“We knew we were on the right side of this one. We didn’t want to lose what we have here in Maine. was the right thing and the only chance we had. The money raised was peanuts compared to who we were up against,” commented Curt Brown, Ready Seafood.

Lobstermen were quick to take action. Some donated their reimbursement checks from the Department of Marine Resources. Some challenged other fishermen in their harbors to step up. Small businesses, from local restaurants to gift shops, started donating a portion of their sales to the campaign. Individuals organized “All Hands on Deck” fundraisers in communities throughout the coast to spread the word about the threat facing the lobster industry and to raise funds for the legal fight.

Slowly, as the implications of NMFS’s planned regulations sank in, the pace and scale of donations increased. Coastal towns, understanding the devastation to their communities if the fishery disappeared, voted to send money to the MLA. Maine banks also saw the writing on the wall. If lobstermen could not fish, they would not be able buy homes or make payments on their boats.

In October 2022, Machias Savings Bank decided the time had come to step into the fray. The bank made a major financial commitment to the SaveMaineLobstermen campaign. “This isn’t about choosing our hard-working lobstermen and women over whales. This isn’t about choosing the economy over conservation. This is about choosing common sense,” Larry Barker, Machias Savings Bank President and CEO, said at the time. Others soon followed: Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, First National Bank, and Camden Savings Bank all made significant donations to the ongoing legal efforts.

This widespread support made the impossible a reality. On June 16, a panel of three judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., unanimously overturned the lower court’s verdict on the MLA’s case, vacating the Biological Opinion without closing the fishery. Said the court, “If, as the lobstermen claim, the federal lobster fishery is not the problem, then the phase one rule is not the solution. No law allows the Service to keep in place a useless rule.” The court was highly critical of Judge Boasberg’s interpretation of the law, “The presumption in favor of the species is, like an adequate margin of safety, a blunt tool. The presumption significantly expands the Service’s veto power, prevents the agency from “paying attention to the advantages and the disadvantages” of the action, and invites the unnecessary economic dislocation wrought by worst-case thinking…”

The MLA’s perseverance – despite countless doubters and naysayers — won the day. “The lobster industry is a mainstay of Maine’s economy, and this is a great victory for both the families that rely on this work for their livelihood as well as the communities around the state that benefit from the industry,” said Machias Savings Bank president Barker. “We’re firmly committed to Moving Maine Forward, which is only possible when we support each other. The success of the MLA’s appeal case is a testament to the strength we have when we stand together to support our neighbors and the industries that our state depends on.”

“It’s a really wonderful thing to see it happen. It’s a tribute to everyone on the coast and to the MLA who took some real body blows over the years. But the MLA stood up to the punches and won the fight,” Brown said. “The words of the appeal judge who wrote the verdict are very powerful. Really strong words. But it’s what we’ve been preaching for years and years and years.”

Charlene Hoyt, whose son and husband lobster out of Kittery, helped organize a hugely successful community fundraiser in that town earlier this year. Hoyt felt a surge of relief upon hearing the verdict. “My son Mark recently bought a larger boat, Ledgehammer, with the dream of making a good living from his hard work. While I am deeply relieved that the MLA won the recent appeal, and my husband and son can continue to make a living, I am far more profoundly relieved that they will both be able to continue making a life, a life that fulfills and strengthens them as marvelous human beings," she wrote in an email. Amanda Smith, who lobsters with her husband from Beals Island, is a member of Downeast Housewives for the Fishing Industry, an informal group of women whose husbands or partners are lobstermen. Last fall, after the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “red” listing of lobster, Smith and her friends got angry. They held two rallies last fall to educate people and to contribute to the MLA’s campaign.

And when the verdict was released, “It breathed new life into our hope, which was starting to wane,” Smith said. “When I found out, I started crying. I know we aren’t done yet by any means, but it gives us breathing room. Winning this is so positive and beneficial in so many ways. With all the fog this summer and bad weather and the lobsters not picking up, this was really good news.”

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