Steaming Ahead: November 2016

First published in Landings, November, 2016.

As I write this, we are in the home stretch of the election season. It seems the negative campaigning and rhetoric reached a new high (or low) this year. Fortunately, soon after you read this the results will be in. Regardless of how it all turned out, I am glad it’s over.

The tone of this year’s election season put a lot of people off. The stress of the unknown affects people differently —some get fired up, while others feel disenchanted. When things become this polarized, many people are gripped with fear about the future. This fear can make us lose sight of how blessed we are to live in a free, democratic country.

And if the election season wasn’t overwhelming enough, there’s been plenty going on within Maine’s lobster industry to strike fear into everyone’s heart. I know that my heart skipped a few beats when I learned about the Maine shellfish recall and closures this fall due to high domoic acid levels caused by a harmful algae bloom. That, and the California Dungeness crab fishery closure last year due to a domoic acid outbreak, tells me it’s time that the Maine lobster industry becomes educated on how susceptible lobster may be to this deadly biotoxin. While we are fortunate to have a strong biotoxin monitoring program in place to detect these natural outbreaks and ensure that the public is not harmed, dealing with a closure and product recall is nothing anyone wants to experience.

Another topic that certainly makes goosebumps rise among lobstermen is the state of the North Atlantic right whale population. The Gulf of Maine’s changing environmental conditions are having significant impacts on these whales. Despite the many changes our industry has made to reduce the risk lobster gear poses to whales and the near doubling of the right whale population since 1997 when we became engaged in efforts to protect whales, scientists are now concerned that the whale population is trending downward. While there is no definitive research, it seems that the abundance and availability of food sources are shifting, where and when the whales are seen have become less predictable, and their health has been affected. This news, coupled with some recent high-profile entanglements, is certainly a cause for concern for our industry.

Bait also turned out to be a nerve-wracking issue for lobstermen this season. I doubt there’s a single lobsterman who hasn’t felt the pinch from this year’s tight supply and record-high bait prices. Thankfully, the lobster catch along the coast has been stable and prices remained good throughout the summer and early fall. Each lobsterman will have to reconcile how increased bait prices affected his or her bottom line this winter: were lobster landings and price strong enough to offset rising bait costs? And then there is the weather. With the fall fishing season firmly upon us, anxiety about weather increases day-by-day. The warm, calm sunny days of summer have shifted to a windy, stormy fall. Whether or not you go fishing is largely determined by the weather. Good fishing days are few and far between, and staying safe at sea and keeping track of gear become more worrisome.

None of this is new to lobstermen. Being a fisherman and running a small business will always be a source of anxiety. There are simply no guarantees when you are self-employed and your livelihood is dependent on Mother Nature. This life is not for everyone. You must be prepared to survive the ups and downs of the industry by being a skilled fisherman, having a clear business plan, and being prepared for your future. It is when you add all of those other issues to the fundamental challenge and danger of making your living at sea that it becomes so much harder.

It appears that this is the new normal for the lobster fishery. We have an amazing track record of being proactive. Due to the foresight of our forefathers, we are fortunate to have a strong, sustainable lobster population. Over the past few years we have developed strong national and international markets to support it. However, the future remains uncertain. As the Gulf of Maine continues to change, and the rest of the world’s oceans as well, the past provides less guidance for us today.

How do we deal with an uncertain future? Some will get angry, some will look for scapegoats, some will withdraw and disconnect from what they fear. Others will take on the challenge, becoming more educated about the issues facing lobstermen, more disciplined in business planning and more cautious about their activities today. As Winston Churchill said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”

As always, stay safe on the water.