Lobstermen are constantly aware of changes: a change in the sky hinting at storm, a change in the sound
of the boat’s engine, a shift in the movement of their prey. Change is a constant in the lobster fishery, whether it’s new regulations or new markets for lobsters.
Likewise, change has been a constant in the state’s oldest fishermen’s organization, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). Founded in 1954 by Vinalhaven lobsterman Leslie Dyer when lobster sold for 30 cents per pound, the MLA has weathered transformations in the lobster fishery that would stagger most organizations. Wooden traps have turned to wire, boats have increased in size and power, Department of Marine Resources Commissioners have come and gone and still the MLA continues to doggedly stand up for Maine’s lobstermen and the communities that depend on them.
Now another change is happening. This spring a new MLA president will be elected. David Cousens will step down and a new MLA board member will take his place.
There have been just five presidents in the MLA’s 64-year history. Les Dyer led the effort to free lobstermen from the stranglehold in which large lobster dealers held them in the mid-1950s. The MLA’s publication “The First 50 Years” quoted Dyer as saying about that time, “The main thing was to convince these lobstermen that our industry was run by the monopoly of a half-dozen big dealers. The largest lobster company was Consolidated Lobster in Boston. They could actually control the price just by making a telephone call. A little independent [fisherman] might try to buck the system, but he couldn’t do it.” In addition, Dyer made sure that the MLA addressed other things of importance to its members. He arranged discounts at marine supply stores, negotiated with a marine insurance company for a reduced hull insurance rate for members’ boats, and even set up a Fishermen’s Loan Corporation to provide low-interest loans to lobstermen.
Beals Island lobsterman Ossie Beal took the helm from Dyer in 1967. Beal was a determined man, one not to be thwarted when he put his mind and the clout of the MLA to something. In 1970 that something was an oil refinery proposed for Machiasport and a desulphurization plant in Penobscot Bay. Beal went to Washington, D.C. to speak against the proposals before a Senate committee headed by Sen. Edmund Muskie. “The association, the fishermen, are 100 percent against oil on the coast. This is our livelihood and we have a lot of money tied up in it. To have an oil company come in and oil refineries and unloading docks or whatever else they might have — we know there’ll be oil spills because human nature is that we all make mistakes one way or another.” Sen. Muskie eventually withdrew his support for the proposals. No similar projects have been proposed for the area since that time.
Under Beal’s leadership, the MLA came out firmly against allowing trawlers to catch or land lobsters in Maine. In 1967 the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the practice, a law that Beal had put the association’s time into to ensure successful passage. The MLA expanded its offerings to members during Beal’s leadership, providing a group life and health insurance plan. Throughout his life, Beal argued eloquently in favor of membership in the MLA by all lobstermen. “I can’t see any reason for not joining the association. The only thing I can say is the lobster fishermen are real independent. They think they are anyway. But they lose their independence the day they start lobster fishing,” he said.
Edward Blackmore stepped into Beal’s shoes in 1974. A lobsterman from Stonington, during his first years as president Blackmore found himself and the MLA battling the IRS. Maine lobstermen were being audited by the IRS in an ongoing examination of the industry. Being audited was bad enough but lobstermen also learned that the IRS considered all sternmen to be employees; they would have to pay Social Security taxes on their sternman’s wages and faced penalties for not having done so in the past. Blackmore quickly organized lobstermen from throughout the coast to petition Maine’s Congressional delegation for relief. Sen. Edmund Muskie eventually drafted the Tax Reform Act of 1976 which made clear that small commercial fishing vessel owners were exempt from Social Security and federal withholding requirements for their crew.
Blackmore continued to fight for benefits for lobstermen, such as creating a state sales tax exemption on fishing equipment, including new and used boats. “Nowadays it’s hard for young fishermen to understand that these benefits haven’t always existed. But they didn’t just fall out of the heavens. We had to fight for them every step of the way,” Blackmore said in a 2004 interview.
When the New England Fishery Management Council started work on its first lobster management plan in the 1980s, Blackmore stepped forward to make sure Maine lobstermen’s concerns were heard. He was appointed in 1981 to the Council, which he later called “the most aggravating time I’ve ever spent.” He lobbied hard to make Maine’s V-notch practice a core component of the management plan and began the MLA’s annual V-notch survey to record its conservation value. He fought to delay any increases in the gauge size, efforts that successfuly froze the gauge size at 3-¼ inches in 1994.
In 1991, David Cousens became president of the MLA. Since then the issues the organization has tackled has increased by leaps and bounds. A full list is impossible to print in this space. Cousens and Pat White, the MLA’s first executive director, organized a sweeping response to the Council’s planned lobster gauge increases which led to the eventual transfer of lobster management authority in 1996 from the Council to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. He worked with Sen. Olympia Snowe to put in place the 100-per-day/500-per-trip limit on dragged lobsters and ensured that dragged lobsters could not be landed in Maine.
After battling with federal agencies about lobster management, the MLA next had to face new regulations concerning whale entanglement in fishing gear. The National Marine Fisheries Service drafted the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan in 1997 which instituted regulations designed to keep whales from becoming ensnared in lobster gear. Cousens and other MLA board members spent countless hours since then making sure that regulators understand fully the impact such rules have on lobstermen.
The complexity of the issues facing Maine’s lobstermen has steadily increased since the days of Les Dyer and Ossie Beal. The MLA will transition to new leadership this year, yet its commitment to the men and women of Maine’s lobster fishery remains the same. Next month Landings will profile the new faces at the helm.