“I’ve burned out ten trucks going to meetings over the years. I was putting 40,000, 50,000 miles on them going to meetings all over the place,” recalled David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). Next month Cousens will step down as the organization’s president, the fourth man to hold that position in the MLA’s 64-year history.
Cousens, 60, still bursts with the sort of energy and sharp opinions he had when he took over from MLA president Ed Blackmore in 1991. At that time annual lobster landings in Maine were a little over 30 million pounds. Maine lobstermen still had the ability to move among the state’s different fisheries, rigging over for scallops, shrimp, herring and other valuable species as the year progressed. The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) held regulatory authority for the fishery and groundfishermen dominated the Council.
Cousens first came to the attention of Ed Blackmore in the mid-1980s as a young man willing to make the trek from his home in South Thomaston to Augusta to protest something he thought wasn’t right. Cousens wanted to see the maximum-size regulation for lobsters kept in place while Maine while the Maine Import Export Lobster Dealers Association, which argued that they suffered an economic disadvantage because oversized lobsters were legal in all other states and Canada, wanted it removed in order to be able to land and possess those lobsters in the state. “I went up to Augusta to speak against it. Ed found me in the corridor and started talking to me about the MLA and I said, ‘Who the hell are you?’” Cousens laughed. Blackmore persisted and before long Cousens was vice-president of the board. The MLA had fought two previous attempts to remove the oversize measure in the late 1970’s.
When Blackmore stepped down, Cousens and York lobsterman Pat White decided to run the association in tandem, with Cousens as president and White as executive director. “I said I’d do it but not the business stuff. We ran the meetings together,” Cousens said. Cousens and White quickly found themselves representing not only MLA members but all Maine lobstermen at dozens of state, regional and federal meetings and hearings throughout New England. The issues were many: legal size increases, V-notching, the perennial desire of dragger boat captains to land lobsters caught in their nets, and escape vent changes.
But perhaps one of the most significant issues the two men tackled was the transfer of regulatory authority from the NEFMC to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The Council oversaw management of commercial fisheries in federal waters; the Commission, on the other hand, had regulatory authority over interstate fisheries, those that predominately occur in state waters. Cousens and White argued that since 80% of the lobster harvested came from state waters in Maine, Massachusetts, and the other New England and Mid-Atlantic states, it made sense to have the Commission, not the Council, hold the regulatory power. They saw this as an opportunity to push Maine’s conservation measures into federal waters, rather than have the government dictate how the state fishery should be managed.
“We would go in as good cop, bad cop,” Cousens recalled. “I’d blast them, telling them all the things we had to have and then Pat would come in saying what he thought we could live with. We’d laugh our asses off on the way home. At many meetings we could both see what would work and what wouldn’t and change our approach to match without ever saying anything.”
The ASMFC required that the states agree to certain conservation measures in their lobster management plans. Cousens advocated for V-notching as one of those measures. A “V” notched in the tail of an egg-bearing lobster tells lobstermen in the future not to keep that female, thus allowing it to produce more eggs and juvenile lobsters. V-notching was a long-standing practice among Maine lobstermen, but not those in other states. “That’s what we wanted as well as a maximum size limit. We pushed hard. It took time but eventually everyone recognized it as a conservation measure,” Cousens said.
Another contentious issue was whether to allow groundfish boats to land lobsters caught at sea. Groundfishermen, who were still the dominant force on the NEFMC, wanted to land 30,000 pounds of lobster per trip. “Around 90% of those lobsters were female! Enforcement in Massachusetts knew that. The Council didn’t have the balls to make it zero [pounds landed per trip]. So they sent me to talk to the fishermen in New Bedford.” The meetings were not cordial. Cousens demanded zero lobster bycatch be landed; the fishermen stuck to 30,000 pounds. At the close of the first meeting, local police escorted Cousens from the meeting place. At the second meeting, groundfishermen said they would accept 10,000 pounds. Cousens stayed at zero. “I asked them to show me how they would be hurt by showing me how much money they made from the lobsters they sold in Massachusetts. You could have heard a pin drop in that room,” Cousens laughed. The groundfishermen were selling those lobsters for cash to local dealers and restaurants to avoid paying taxes on the catch; there were no records. “Pat and I went to [former Maine senator] Olympia Snowe and told her what we wanted,” Cousens said. “She called to say that she couldn’t get to zero, but the compromise was 100 lobsters per day or 500 lobsters per trip.” Cousens and White made sure that no dragger-caught lobster could be legally landed in Maine.
In the early and mid-1990s, Maine enjoyed a powerful presence in Congress. Senator George Mitchell was the leader of the Senate; Senator Snowe was the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard; Senator Bill Cohen soon became head of the Department of Defense. Cousens and White had no hesitation in contacting any Congressional representative on the issues that concerned them. “We developed personal friendships with them and we didn’t trouble them often. They knew we wouldn’t cry wolf. We never complained to Washington unless things were really bad,” Cousens said.
Dealing with fellow lobstermen was often not as pleasant as dealing with Washington. When authority for lobster management moved to the ASMFC, the Commission required certain regulatory changes
including keeping the minimum size at 3 ¼” and establishing area management. In the interest of conservation, it also asked lobstermen whether they would prefer to limit the number of traps they fished to 475 or to instead raise the size of the escape vent in their traps. At the time Maine lobstermen could fish an unlimited number of traps. “We polled our members then had meetings to hear what lobstermen wanted to do,” Cousens said. “They said they would go with the vent size increase.”
The next year, when the new rule was due to go into effect, lobstermen protested, loudly. “They held a meeting in Augusta. About 200 guys spoke against it and maybe nine for it. I told them, ‘Look, we made a deal and we can’t go back on it.’ And I knew it wouldn’t hurt anyone.” The size of the escape vent had been increased to 1 15/16-inches. When the ASMFC first settled on that size the previous year, Cousens had set 200 of his traps with the new vents. He found that his traps fished better than before, with more of the “junk” escaping from the trap. “We lost members over that. One guy tore up his MLA card in front of me in the bathroom that night,” Cousens recalled. “But then the next year, when it was mandated we heard no complaints, none.”
Despite occasionally contentious issues, Cousens found common ground with lobstermen not only in New England but also in Canada. “I went everywhere, Quebec, Halifax, P.E.I. Back then, it was easy for the Canadian lobstermen to blame us for everything. But we’d meet and talk and finally we realized that the dealers were playing us,” he said. “So we said ‘Let’s not let them do that.” In response, the MLA started publishing a weekly lobster price report, detailing what was being paid at docks in Massachusetts, Maine and the Canadian provinces. MLA members were able to see exactly what was going on both in the state and elsewhere, information that gave them power when it came to selling their own catches. “The price report was huge,” Cousens said.
Cousens currently sits on the board of the Island Institute where he is involved with the impact of climate change on the Gulf of Maine and its fisheries. And he is very concerned about what may happen to Maine’s lobstermen in the future. “The younger generation had better pay attention to what’s going on. We’re over-capitalized now. Back in the 1980s we were landing 20 million pounds, not 130 million. Until the 1990s you didn’t make any money lobstering. And now with all these offshore boats at $500,000, what are you going to do when things drop off?”
Cousens credits the MLA board for providing strong leadership throughout that time and for being proactive rather than reactive. “I will miss seeing the guys on the board,” Cousens said. “I learn what’s going on from them. Arnie Gamage and I talk just about every week.” But he is done with, as he put it, “the political bullshit. I can have my own personal opinions now. And it’s time for the next generation to step up.”