Young lobstermen explore fishery on both sides of U.S./Canada border

First published in Landings, June, 2014.

May was a slow month in Maine, marked by rain and decidedly cool temperatures. For many lobstermen, it was the time to get their gear ready and make sure the boat was in prime condition. For 11 young lobstermen, however, May was a month of learning.

They are young and they are the face of tomorrow's Maine lobster fishery. Photo courtesy of Patrice McCarron.

They are young and they are the face of tomorrow’s Maine lobster fishery. Photo courtesy of Patrice McCarron.

“I signed up because I want to become well versed with all parts of the Maine lobster industry,” explained Abe Philbrook of Northeast Harbor. “I want to be able to represent my industry in the future.”

The eleven lobstermen chosen from throughout the state took part in the first Maine Lobster Leadership Institute organized by the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance (MLCA). “As the Maine lobster industry copes with a rapidly changing fishery, keeping the industry relevant and profitable for the next generation is essential,” explained Patrice McCarron, president of the MLCA. “New leaders must step up in order to preserve hard-won measures that are fundamental to the lobster fishery’s abundance and ensure future prosperity.”

During the first segment of the Leadership Institute, participants spent two days learning about the science, management, economic, and policy aspects of Maine’s lobster fishery. Carl Wilson, chief lobster biologist at the Department of Marine Resources, provided a thorough overview of the state of the lobster fishery both in Maine and in Canada, emphasizing the benefits that Maine’s many conservation measures have brought to the fishery. He also reviewed the state’s lobster monitoring programs and the health of lobster stocks at present.

Deirdre Gilbert, policy director for DMR, spoke about the state, regional and federal management framework in which lobstermen must operate. Young lobstermen today have no memory of the time when fishery was under the purview of the New England Fisheries Management Council rather than the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission nor of the benefits that came to Maine when the switch was made in the late 1990s. They were not yet on the water when the state made the historic decision to cede control of lobster regulations to local Lobster Zone Councils in 1996 and created the Lobster Advisory Council. Gilbert reviewed these momentous changes to lobstering in Maine and spoke of the department’s current efforts to create a state Fishery Management Plan for lobster.

The twelve lobstermen also learned about the impact that the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act have had on lobstering in the state during the past ten years. They then were given a comprehensive look at how lobster is sold on the national and international markets and the relationship between the Maine and Canadian lobster industries. The two-day session ended with the participants attending a meeting of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board of directors’ meeting to learn first-hand how the 60-year old organization works.

Cyrus Sleeper, middle, and David COusens, right, were interviewed while on PEI by CBC Radio. Photo by Patrice McCarron.

Cyrus Sleeper, middle, and David COusens, right, were interviewed while on PEI by CBC Radio. Photo by Patrice McCarron.

John Tripp from Spruce Head, said he gained a lot from the presentations. “I could have benefited from a couple more days of it, actually,” he said. “I used to think, ‘oh the hell with it, just let me go fishing’. But going through that made me change my way of thinking.”

“I really liked the class stuff, particularly meeting Carl Wilson,” said Chris Welch of Kennebunk. “I like hands-on but sometimes, you know, you just have to sit down and get a lecture. I took quite a bit out of it.”

A week later the Maine lobstermen took off for a six-day visit with lobstermen on Prince Edward Island (PEI). The purpose of the trip was to illustrate how Maine’s lobster fishery differs from that of the Canadians. The PEI lobstermen opened their homes to the Maine men, took them out on their boats, and generally provided a level of hospitality that astonished the participants. “We went out on 14 boats on the first day, then another 13 on the second day,” explained McCarron. “They packed us lunches and joined us for dinner. They really took care of us.” The Mainers visited two processing plants, Royal Star in Tignish, which is a fisherman-owned business, and the smaller Acadian Fishermen’s Cooperative in Abram Village. They also met with representatives from the many lobstermen’s associations active on the island, including the King County Association, Northern Shore Association, Western Shore Association and the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association. “We really gained an appreciation of how important their fishery is them,” McCarron continued.

Prince Edward Island lobstermen, like lobstermen throughout the Maritime provinces, fish in distinct Lobster Fishery Areas, or LFAs. The LFAs open sequentially throughout the year for a limited period. The Prince Edward Island lobstermen fish an 8-week period in the late spring and early summer. In addition, they are allowed to fish only 300 traps per license.

This system was eye-opening to the twelve lobstermen. Justin Papkee of Long Island was struck by the pressure that short season places on the lobstermen. “They have a two-month season so they have to go every day (except Sunday). You can’t miss a day for weather or boat trouble,” he said. Chris Welch of Kennebunk, who fished with the Jollimore family of French River (on the north shore of PEI) was surprised by the limited season too. “I didn’t know it was a just a two-month season. I wouldn’t like that sort of pressure at all, forced to go every day even if the weather’s bad,” Welch said.

The Institute participants took a comprehensive tour of the Royal Star processing plant in Tignish, PEI. The facility is owned by a local fishermen's co-operative. MLCA photo.

The Institute participants took a comprehensive tour of the Royal Star processing plant in Tignish, PEI. The facility is owned by a local fishermen’s co-operative. MLCA photo.

On the other hand, several lobstermen noticed that PEI lobstermen were doing well in terms of landings. The island lobstermen haul through every day. “A thousand pounds would be a good day,” explained Isaac Lash of Friendship. Of course, the legal size is different in PEI. A lobsterman can land a 72 millimeter lobster (equivalent to 2.834 inches), generally called a “canner.” Dustin Delano of Friendship had a hard time adjusting to that smaller gauge. He fished with lobsterman David Sampson out of Morrell. “He had me picking out the lobsters and I kept tossing them overboard because they were so small to me,” Delano laughed. “Finally his wife put me right.” “I think it’s pretty efficient there,” commented Cyrus Sleeper of Spruce Head. “It’s a limited amount of bait used and a limited season.”

The Maine lobstermen also noticed some intriguing differences in the PEI boats and the way they were set up. “It was totally different,” Sleeper said. “They haul from the stern. They have five to eight traps to a trawl but they call that a set.” The traps used on PEI are still made of wood and considerably heavier than Maine lobster traps, running between 100 and 120 pounds each. Consequently, the boats have equipment specifically to handle the heavier traps. “He had a crane on the boat to lift and then roll the traps in,” Isaac Lash of Friendship said, referring to Craig Avery of Alberton, with whom he lobstered. “It’s a hydraulic system and he can use it off the stern or the side.”

Genevieve McDonald of Stonington fished with two PEI lobstermen.  “The most unusual part of the experience for me was their use of wooden traps,” she said. The PEI lobstermen had tried wire traps in the past but uniformly found that the traps simply didn’t fish well.

The lobsters in PEI seemed to behave differently than those in Maine as well. “They fish shoaler water,” explained Tripp. “The lobsters are finicky about water depth and temperature. If it’s too cold, they numb up. If it’s too shoal, you get fewer lobsters. They told me that lobsters like to travel the edges of the substrates. They like sand and a harder bottom.”

Institute participants had time not only to lobster with PEI host lobstermen but to relax and socialize as well. Photo by Patrice McCarron.

Institute participants had time not only to lobster with PEI host lobstermen but to relax and socialize as well. Photo by Patrice McCarron.

The Maine lobstermen had the opportunity to tour the entire Royal Star processing plant in Tignish. Royal Star is a subsidiary of the Tignish Fisheries Co-op Association Limited. The majority of the town’s residents either work for the plant or are part of the association. “They have a 180 boats (supplying lobster) and operate for just six months, from April to December,” McCarron said. “All the people working there, about 300, are local. It’s inspiring. The company has its own brand and also processes for other companies.”

The ease with which the lobstermen can off-load their catch ease day impressed Chris Welch, who operates from the crowded harbor in Kennebunk. “They could drop off their catch at Royal Star and then their day was over!” he said. Those lobster crates each have the lobsterman’s name on them. If the lobsters are illegal or weak, it’s very easy to link the specific lobster to the lobsterman. “There’s really no monkey business there,” commented David Cousens, president of the MLA who took part in the trip. “There’s no cheating on size.”

All the participants commented on the friendliness they experienced from the PEI lobstermen. “I was a little apprehensive that they might not be so welcoming,” admitted Sleeper. “Not at all.” Lash who fished with Craig Avery, found himself something of a celebrity. “Yeah, they’d say ‘hey we got some Mainers over here’ and they’d all come over,” he laughed. “They were just awesome,” said Papkee of Long Island. “They were happy to talk to us and to learn from us.” Welch was surprised by how easily the PEI lobstermen traded information among themselves. “From one end of the island to the other they knew how everyone was doing. They all knew pretty much at the same time when things dropped off one day. The open communication was a good thing,” he said. “They all seemed to work together real well,” added Dustin Delano. “They all seemed to get the same price, which helps.”

To Cousens, who has been lobstering for more than three decades, watching as these young lobstermen coalesced as a group, traded stories with the PEI lobstermen, and took note of how things were done in Canada was very satisfying. “You couldn’t find twelve better men for this,” he said as the trip came to an end. “They are inquisitive and open-minded. We went up with no set agenda, we just wanted to meet with people and experience what their lives were like.” After traveling 1,300 miles in six days, the lobstermen were glad to get back to their home ports. “Going to see how they lobster up there, and how we do it up and down the coast here was great,” said Welch. “And it was a good way to connect with the other guys (in the Institute program). The younger generation is going to be taking over this industry sooner rather than later!”