Steaming Ahead: October 2012

First published in the MLA Newsletter, October, 2012.

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” John Maynard Keynes wrote these words in 1935, and they remind me of the struggles facing our industry today.

Our business-as-usual approach to lobstering has led us to a cross roads –stay the course and watch our profits erode or find a new way forward. With the boat price weakened to the point where expenses are eating away at profits, many may not be able to stay the course. Certainly, the sheer volume of the catch will keep a number of lobstermen in business and living comfortably. But those who are not landing big catches or are carrying debt are vulnerable. You know who those young fellas are – for many, they are your children.

I’ve often heard over the years that the industry is best left alone — things will work themselves out just as they always have. After all, when times are tough, the most talented fishermen will make it while the less skilled will fall out. That, many have argued, is exactly what our industry needs – survival of the fittest to weed out those who don’t belong. It’s just too bad we don’t get to pick those who are the ‘most fit’ to survive.

At our September meeting, the MLA directors spent considerable time talking about what the current crisis means for the future of our industry. The MLA board is blessed with a tremendous group of leaders. When lobstermen from all parts of the coast are seated at the table, it challenges each person to think about what is good for the industry as a whole. While each is guided by his own experiences and the needs of his community, there is a tremendous respect for another’s point of view. They want to ensure that doing right by the fishermen in their backyard is not at the expense of others along the coast.

The older members of the MLA board are keenly aware and reverent about the opportunity that the lobster industry has afforded them. Now, they worry that the same opportunity is slipping away for the next generation. Despite knowledge of the trade and long hours of hard work, these up-and-coming lobstermen just might not be able to pay their bills this winter. It’s not like the old days where they could make ends meet during tough times by jumping into another fishery – those opportunities have all but vanished for lobstermen.

I think that almost every lobsterman in Maine has a strong sense that things just aren’t right with the industry. While many believe that there is a problem, few can come to an agreement regarding what, if anything, should be done.

At its meeting, the MLA board reached consensus that the Maine lobster industry is in crisis and doing nothing is not an option. They voted to support the $3million marketing campaign being proposed by the Lobster Advisory Council. Building more demand for Maine lobster is critical to the future success of our industry.

Beyond investing in marketing the potential solutions vary widely, reflecting differences in philosophy among directors as well as the diversity of our fishery. Following an intense discussion, the MLA directors developed a list of goals to measure any proposals put forth that would change how lobstermen do business.

We want to maintain a 100+ million pound fishery.

We want to improve profitability of harvesters by looking at ways to control cost and improve the value of the product.

We want to reduce our dependence on Canadian processors.

We want to ensure a future for the younger generations of lobstermen.

We want to improve the quality of the product we land by reducing mortality and improving shipability and meat content.

As we consider solutions, everything is on the table.

Any proposal must consider regional differences in the fishery.

Any changes implemented must sunset if they have not improved the profitability of lobstermen and quality of product landed.

Some of you may remember Ossie Beal. Ossie was a tenacious lobsterman from Beal’s Island and second director of the MLA. When a large oil refinery was proposed for Machiasport, he fought it tooth and nail, bringing the weight of the MLA to Senate hearings to protest the proposal. It failed. Under his direction, the MLA successfully fought a plan to allow draggers to catch and sell lobsters, sheparding a 1967 law prohibiting the practice through the state Legislature. And who can forget Ed Blackmore diligently working with Congressional legislators to prove that Maine lobstermen are self-employed businessmen whose sternmen are contractors, not employees. He also engineered the sales tax exemption that Maine lobstermen enjoy today.

MLA executive director Pat White lead the fight to move authority for lobster management from the New England Fisheries Management Council to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, forcefully arguing that since 80% of lobster landings came from state waters, the states themselves should have a voice in managing the resource. These men were your colleagues, fellow lobstermen who knew that through an organization like the MLA, change could be made. They just had to fight for it.

That’s what we are doing now. Change has come to the Maine lobster industry once again. The question is whether to lead that change or be bowled over by it. The MLA board is working hard to figure out what can be done to make the future for your children as good as the present has been for you. They are the leaders that you have elected to serve. But they can’t do it without you. Please take the time to talk to the director from your area about what the lobster industry can do to ensure a more profitable future. Challenge them with your ideas, and allow yourself to be challenged by theirs.

And don’t forget to send in your membership application today! The MLA has accomplished great things for Maine’s lobstermen since it was founded in 1954. We will do it again.

As always, stay safe on the water.

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