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Steaming Ahead - March 2023

Maine’s lobster industry welcomed 2023 with a sense of optimism. As the industry catches its breath after the turmoil of the last few years, the MLA is preparing to tackle the ever-growing challenges we face, not least of which are the new whale rules in 2028.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what the MLA has accomplished in the last few years with a barebones staff and our volunteer Board of Directors, who refused to back down despite constant skepticism. We raised enough money to put together a team of talented experts, which finally earned the lobster industry the attention and respect it deserves.

We hired the best legal team in the country to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)! We came to court eloquently armed to counter misleading attacks by deep-pocketed non-governmental groups and our own government that sought to shut down the lobster fishery. Not only has the MLA gone toe-to-toe with two Goliaths, we changed the entire media landscape on the right whale issue. These accomplishments belong to the MLA and the MLA alone, and believe me, neither was an easy lift. The shift in media coverage of the whale issue is particularly important. It’s taken a long time and reflects years of the MLA regularly touting the fishery’s excellent track record in right whale conservation practices. Media reports now regularly state the fact that Maine’s lobster industry has never been known to kill a right whale and, in fact, right whales are very rare in the waters we fish. By making our story known, the public now struggles to understand why the federal government would put an industry with no evidence of causing a right whale death out of business.

The MLA does its work for Maine lobstering families, like the Hunt family of Corea. Photo by C. Clegg.

Then there’s the December miracle from Congress. The action taken by Congress was not random, but rather the result of collaboration and hard work behind the scenes. The MLA, with a lot of help from our legal team, and DMR, with a lot of help from its lobbyist and legal team, worked closely to craft a strategy that had a chance of being successful in Congress. We carefully weighed from many angles the level of relief Congress could provide the lobster industry against the chance of legislative success. Clearly we chose well. In the end, nothing would have happened if not for the incredible leadership and perseverance of Maine’s Congressional delegation and Governor. The six-year pause and $50 million in funding for research and monitoring provide us the time and resources to work toward solving this regulatory over-reach by NMFS.

The MLA’s recent successes are tremendous, but if we are going to remain successful in the next phase of this fight, we need to up our game. The MLA team must be big enough and skilled enough to effectively do the work that must be done, whenever it needs to be done.

The MLA is not currently set up to do this. What the MLA has achieved on the shoulders of its small staff and board is its own miracle. Now it is time to strategically build MLA’s capacity so the organization does not collapse under the weight of the many complicated issues we face.

This month the MLA is thrilled to welcome its first Chief Operating Officer. Amber-Jean Nickel has been hired to develop a strategic path forward while managing the MLA’s operations in order to achieve a stable future for the association. She will be introduced to MLA members at our annual meeting. I am shifting into Policy Director, so I am not going anywhere, just to a slightly smaller office!

The MLA is holding its 69th annual meeting this year. We have a rich history, stellar track record and institutional knowledge that is unmatched in the state. The MLA was started by lobstermen to unite the fishery in order to address serious issues that threaten lobstermen, families, and their communities. Nothing has changed since 1954 except the complexity of the issues that lobstermen are facing. Leslie Dyer, Ossie Beal, Ed Blackmore, David Cousens, Kristan Porter … each man has had to find the best way to lead the MLA forward in the face of regulatory and management actions that could have swamped the industry at any time.

I remember so clearly Arnie Gamage expressing his frustration as the whale issue began to consume so much of the MLA’s time. He never balked at the MLA’s responsibility to lead the fight but longed for the days when the issues MLA dealt with actually made sense to lobstermen, like not dragging for lobster or protecting oversize lobsters. Now, he said, lobstermen struggle to understand a fraction of what is being discussed. And these are the issues could put them out of business!

Arnie would be shocked at how truly complicated it has become. The incredible maze of the whale rules and the fast-developing offshore wind energy projects require relentless attention. And who knows what will be next over the rail? Whatever it is, the MLA must be ready for it.

Change can be hard but, as always, the MLA will adapt in order to make sure it remains rock-solid for Maine lobstermen, both today and in the future.

As always, stay safe on the water.

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