Maine Lobstermen’s Association: David Cousens, president & Patrice McCarron, exec. director

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

No one can accuse David Cousens of being a reticent person. The 54-year-old Spruce Head lobsterman has a voice that fills even the largest room and a physical energy to match. As president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association for the last 22 years, he has used that energy to tackle numerous issues that have had an impact on the entire Maine lobster industry, from mandatory V-notches to the current regulatory conflict concerning right whales in the Gulf of Maine. And it all started with a single trip to Augusta.

David Cousens, MLA president. Photo by Melissa Waterman.

“I went up there (Augusta) in 1983, by myself, to speak about doing away with the maximum gauge length (5 inches) and I met Ed Blackmore,” Dave recalled. “I spoke at the hearing and then Ed says to me, ‘we need people who can speak in public and make sense, so why don’t you come on the MLA board?’” Dave had started lobstering full-time in 1980 after graduating from the University of Maine in Farmington with a degree in special education. Despite being busy with his fishing and having a growing family, he decided to give the board a try. By 1987 he was vice-president of the organization and Ed Blackmore was getting ready to step down as president and executive director.

“I didn’t want Ed’s job. So Pat White and I shared it. He did a lot of the business end of things (as executive director) and I did advocacy,” Dave explained. Management of the Maine lobster fishery was under the jurisdiction of the New England Fisheries Management Council at that time. Dave, Pat White and other lobstermen lobbied for regulatory authority to be moved to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, arguing that since 80 percent of lobsters caught in the region are pulled from state waters, it made sense to get it away from the feds. “We also worked to get dragging for lobsters stopped, getting V-notching instituted everywhere and some real good conservation measures in place in the early and mid-1990s,” Dave said.

As president of the MLA, Dave helped usher the organization into broader arenas at the state and regional levels. “We started working with scientists. In those days, scientists were the enemy. But we needed to listen to each other because we each had something to contribute,” he said. Working with University of Maine research scientists such as Bob Steneck and Rick Wahle, the MLA became involved in gathering data on lobster settlement and density, efforts that ultimately led to the multi-year, federally-funded Penobscot Bay Project in the 1990s.

First and foremost, Dave is a lobsterman, a member of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-op, and father of three sons, all of whom are lobstering on their own. “I don’t know how many days I’ve missed fishing to go to meetings,” Dave said with a shake of his head. “But the whole point is to get the industry to a better place in terms of profitability.” He knows that the MLA can’t change the temperature of the Gulf of Maine, which has grown steadily warmer over the past several decades or alter the population dynamics of lobsters. But the organization can do a lot to make sure that the next generation of lobsters will be part of a strong fishery, as Dave and his colleagues have been. “The MLA has always looked at the bigger picture,” Dave said. “We don’t go to D.C. much but when we do, we get shit done.”

Patrice McCarron has been executive director of the MLA for “a long, long time,” as she puts it. Patrice came to the position from her home state of Massachusetts after serving for two years in the Peace Corps, working as a planner in Hancock County, staff person for the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, and a conservation associate at the New England Aquarium in Boston after getting her Master’s degree in natural resource planning from the University of Vermont.

MLA executive director Patrice McCarron with husband David, daughter Anna, and son Edwin. Photo by Janice Plante.

While at the New England Aquarium, Patrice was responsible for organizing at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum the 1999 Lobster Summit, a full-day seminar featuring lobster experts from around the world. The task reflected her graduate school interest in lobster co-management, which was the focus of her studies at the University of Vermont. “I met all the players through the steering committee,” Patrice recalled. “And Pat White asked me to come work for the MLA.” She began in 2000 for one year as associate director and then became executive director the next year with White’s departure from that position. Lobster management had moved from the NEFMC to the ASFMC but many of the details of the shift were still being worked out. “I spent lots of time at the Lobster Conservation Management Team meetings and other meetings,” she said.

During her tenure as executive director, Patrice has seen it all, from squabbles about mandatory V-notching to gauge changes and sinking groundline regulations. The MLA has changed as the issues have changed, always in a good direction, according to Patrice. “We have a board that has more younger lobstermen [than in the past]. They process things so fully, they are all so involved and they do set the policy direction,” she explained. “There’s a lot of pride and buy-in by the board directors.” She acknowledged that serving on the board is often a thankless task for the directors. The meetings are long, there’s always too much to do, and then there are the other lobstermen they have to face when they go home. “It’s a big constituency so the MLA board is the key link to the membership,” she explained.

As the MLA has evolved, so too has Patrice. “I’ve always had a knack for getting the policy stuff, for bringing lots of facts together,” she said. “Over time I’ve come to understand that you have to trust your gut. And then call people and talk to them to test what your gut tells you!” She credits the fact that she grew up in Massachusetts, not within the Maine lobstering world, with providing her “objectivity” on sensitive issues. “It can be so black and white, you are either in or out. People often think with their hearts and their emotions — ten people will tell you ten different things!” Patrice said with a laugh. That’s when objectivity is key.

In the coming years, Patrice wants to see the MLA become more financially stable as an organization. “That’s at the top of the list,” she said emphatically. “This organization does not have a business model that will keep it alive. It’s a dues-based organization. I build the budget each year $100 at a time. Then people say they aren’t going to join this year because we did such-and-such.” Maine lobstermen will face so many changes in the next few years – ocean-based wind power development, menhaden and herring quotas, right whale regulations are a few – and the MLA will have to be ready to work with them on those issues. “The organization is growing and that requires money,” Patrice said. “The MLA’s credibility is its strength. There are lots of groups that want to work with us and give us money but that is definitely not in the industry’s best interest.”

With two young children at home, balancing the demands of the MLA and a satisfying home life are difficult. But Patrice is quite clear that she loves her job. “Yeah, at the end of the day it’s stressful and exhausting. But this job has been a blessing for me. This work has fulfilled me in so many ways,” she said.