Steaming Ahead – March 2018

The 2018 MLA Annual Meeting will mark a changing of the guard for the Association. After 27 years of service as President of the MLA, David Cousens is retiring. This transition is a good time to reflect on the MLA’s many accomplishments during David’s tenure and the MLA’s strength and stability as it seamlessly transitions to new leadership.
The MLA has been hard at work fighting to preserve a way of life for lobstermen, their families and their communities since 1954. No one person can build a 64-year legacy the magnitude of the MLA’s. David is only the fourth president since the MLA was founded, joining the ranks of Leslie Dyer, Ossie Beal and Eddie Blackmore. Each guided the MLA through a variety of challenges, and each built on the success of the previous president. It’s the constant strengthening of the MLA through the close interaction between the President and the Board on all decisions and policy direction that has given the organization its stability and power through the years. As they say, no man is an island; that has proved true year after year for the MLA as the President and Board worked in sync to face increasingly complex threats to Maine’s lobster fishery.  
Nevertheless, David Cousens leaves behind an impressive legacy. David’s true passions lie in his strong conservation ethic, belief in the lobster industry and ability to work with people. It is his powerful belief in conservation that got him involved in the first place. Back in 1985, the MLA was battling before the Legislature to prevent an attempt by Maine’s lobster dealers to eliminate the maximum gauge size. In the State House, MLA President Ed Blackmore took note of a well-spoken 27-year-old lobsterman from South Thomaston who showed up on his own to testify against this bill. Ed immediately saw David’s special combination of passion and intelligence and recruited him to the MLA. In June 1986, David was elected to the MLA Board and Blackmore took him under his wing. A few years later, in 1991, David became MLA’s fourth president.  
David was fortunate to work closely with Pat White during his first ten years as President. The two partnered to stop a series of minimum gauge increases put into motion by the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC), to have Maine’s V-notch measure recognized by federal fishery managers, and to prevent landing dragger-caught lobsters in Maine and other states. They deftly worked together to shift management of the lobster fishery from NEFMC to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), arguing that since the vast majority of lobster were caught in state waters, regulatory authority should lie with a state-directed body rather than the federal government. The transfer of authority led to creation of the Lobster Management Areas (LMAs) which, for the first time, gave all lobstermen a voice in how lobster fishing in their geographic area was managed. The creation of Area 1 meant that Maine’s core management measures — V-notching egg-bearing females, returning under- or over-sized lobsters to the sea — now encompassed not just Maine but also New Hampshire and most of Massachusetts out to 40 miles from shore. No longer could Shafmaster boats sit on Maine’s three-mile line and land Maine’s oversize and V-notched lobsters.
David worked closely with then-Senator Olympia Snowe to stop the landing of dragger-caught lobster. He was so passionate about the damage that trawl gear would cause lobster habitat and lobsters that he became a fierce adversary of Massachusetts and New Hampshire trawler captains who lobbied hard to prevent any limits on lobster bycatch landings. Working with Snowe, David was able to broker a compromise: draggers could land 100 lobsters per day or 500 lobsters per trip. Though he was frustrated that the law was passed with a count of lobster rather than pounds, David felt that it was a huge gain compared to having no limits at all. Maine’s prohibition on landing dragger-caught lobster has been challenged many times since then, and David has always led the charge to ensure that the prohibition remains in place.
Not all lobstermen have agreed with MLA’s actions over the years and that has often landed David squarely in the crosshairs of harsh criticism from fellow lobstermen. In order to avoid increases in the minimum gauge and extremely severe trap limits, MLA led an initiative to increase the size of the escape vent as part of the first ASMFC lobster plan. Many lobstermen were enraged. The MLA lost members and I’m sure there are some reading this today who are still angry about it!
David took a lot of arrows over issues like these for the betterment of the industry. It’s no secret that lobstermen do not like change, but David always understood that change was inevitable. Rather than sit back and react to things, David took the initiative to find solutions that would be most beneficial for lobstermen over the long run. His desire to ensure that his generation was able to hand off a strong and economically viable fishery to the next generation fueled his ability to rise above the criticism. Not many would have survived the level of bad-mouthing and scrutiny that David shouldered for the MLA over the years.
David was also a pioneer in bringing scientists and fishermen together to conduct collaborative research on lobsters. At a time when lobstermen rarely trusted scientists, David’s passion for knowledge and love of the fishery made it natural for him to break down these barriers. He was one of the first to observe lobsters from an underwater submarine with Dr. Bob Steneck from the University of Maine. He also played a critical role in getting the massive Penobscot Bay lobster research project underway in the mid-1990s as well as hosting the Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) first sea samplers.
David wasn’t all about conserving lobster. He also recognized that lobstermen needed to buy into these measures for them to work and that enforcement needed to be effective for Maine’s conservation efforts to remain intact given the huge scale of the fishery. He advocated for funds to improve Marine Patrol’s surveillance equipment and keep the Bureau fully staffed. He also started in 1994 the MLA’s Annual Marine Patrol Officer of the Year Award to recognize the importance of outstanding enforcement work. In 2001, MLA established its Golden V-notch Award to recognize the efforts of a lobsterman who has gone above and beyond to improve the fishery.
David’s outgoing personality served him well in networking with lobstermen from near and far. He forged close friendships with lobstermen in Canada and around the region, working to educate them on the conservation benefits of Maine’s V-notch and maximum size measures. These relationships laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Maine Lobster Leadership Institute, launched connections with Irish lobstermen who adopted the V-notch measure, and led to the International Fishermen’s Exchange in 2010. Finding different methods to give lobstermen a voice and thus a seat at the table has always been important to David. He saw the establishment of the state’s lobster zone council system in the late 1990’s as another way to give Maine’s lobstermen a stronger say in how lobsters are managed.
David’s ability to represent the lobster industry with passion and his low tolerance for bureaucratic nonsense helped him create strong working relationships with Maine’s DMR Commissioners, Governors, state legislators and key members of Maine’s Congressional delegation over the years. There is no doubt that if you asked George Mitchell, Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Angus King, Chellie Pingree or any other of Maine’s prominent political figures over the last 30 years about the Maine lobster industry, the name “David Cousens” would come up.
It has been a privilege to work with David and the MLA Board over the past 18 years. I have certainly learned more about lobster than I ever thought possible. I’ve also learned a lot about people, about what motivates them, what inspires them, what gets under their skin. David has demonstrated what a good leader can do over time. He has put his heart and soul into the MLA and the lobster industry has thrived because of that. And though his legacy is amazing, he has most importantly taught me that life is about choices — and family and health always come first. David, I will miss you!

2012 ME Fishermen’s Forum