Maine is home to more than 4,800 licensed lobstermen operating along the coast. Those lobstermen represent fishing traditions that go back more than one hundred years. Within the small towns that dot the Maine coast, men and women head to sea each day as their parents and grandparents once did, using their hard-earned skills to capture lobsters and bring them to shore. Now that tradition is at risk as fishery regulators consider the need for increased protections for North Atlantic right whales, regulations which could threaten the livelihoods of these resolute lobstermen.
A loud chorus of barking dogs greets a visitor to lobsterman Dwight Carver’s house on Beals Island. Only one of the pack is his, the others are his daughter’s. To get to the house one takes a right onto Barney Cove Road and then turns at the tidy orange house at the top of Carver’s driveway. “That was my parents’ house. My oldest brother owns it now. He had it painted that color. He’s happy with it and so I’m happy with it,” Carver said decisively.
Carver has been lobstering full-time since graduating from Beals Island High School in 1973, where he was a star basketball player. The sturdy 63-year-old learned to fish from his father, a founding member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. He’s done nearly every form of commercial fishing found in the state, from groundfishing to scalloping to lobstering. Carver remembers the days when the lobster he hauled brought just $1.37 per pound at the dock. In those days Beals Island fishermen could shift among different fisheries, including herring, clams, and sandworms, to make their modest living on the island.
Carver continued to go gillnetting up until the early 1990s. He saw whales while fishing offshore — minke, sei, and the other species that traverse the Gulf of Maine. But he doesn’t see them any longer. “I very, very seldom see any whales now. They were more active in the 1970s and 1980s and came closer to home than now,” Carver said. “The whale feed is gone.” Baleen whales, such as right whales, strain microscopic organisms, such as tiny copepods, from seawater for their diet. The large animals need a lot of copepods to keep themselves fit and healthy.
Despite the fact that Carver and his fellow lobstermen do not see the whales that they did in decades past, they fish as though the marine mammals are ever-present. Since 1997, New England lobstermen have used a suite of measures to make their lobster gear safer for whales. Measures such as using groundline that sinks to the bottom rather than floating between traps, and adding more traps to each buoy line have resulted in the removal of nearly 30,000 miles of rope from the Gulf of Maine. Other measures such as weak links below the buoy are to help whales break free of the gear if encountered, and gear marking to determine where gear came from if it is found on a whale.
Lobstermen critique rope the way a sculptor evaluates marble or a cabinetmaker looks at wood. “Sink rope is not as smooth as [the older] rope was. It’s because of how it’s made,” Carver explained. In Downeast Maine, the tides run high and hard. The bottom is a rugged terrain, composed of boulders, escarpments and jagged ledges. Carver typically sets his traps not as trawls, but as doubles or triples, the two or three traps connected by tailer warps. Whale regulations no longer allow him to set his gear as singles in nearshore waters. As he moves offshore, his gear must be set with at least 5 traps per buoyline to comply with whale regulations. “On an ebb tide I will haul and let the buoys and rope trail over. On a flood tide, the boat will fill up with rope. And that rope doesn’t slide as well by itself. [The sink rope] will grab itself,” Carver said.
A boat full of chafing and kinking rope is an unsafe place in which to work. “It bunches and grabs and won’t ride by things smoothly. If you’re setting and a piece of rope grabs and the sternman is lifting the trap to go over, well, you’ve got to deal with that fast,” Carver said.
In addition, the sinking rope snags not only itself but traps, boulders, and whatever else it comes across underwater. That’s a lot of weight a lobsterman might be startled to find snarled in his hauler. “It’s less safe than the poly rope. Any fisherman will tell you that,” Carver continued.
The sinking rope also wears out more quickly as it moves back and forth across rocks, grit and gravel on the seafloor between the traps. Carver thinks that the rope’s lack of a hard casing, as poly rope has, causes the rope’s fibers to fray more quickly. “A decent grade poly rope gets three times the life of sink rope,” he said. “Chafing is a big problem. The rope between the first and second trap wears quickly and then you can lose the rest of the traps.”
Carver doesn’t set his traps as far offshore as he used to, preferring to stay ten miles or so off the coast. If he did, he would have to reconfigure his gear to have at least 15 traps on each trawl. But in his area the younger lobstermen have adapted to the whale regulations and many are heading offshore, some year-round. “Fishing is changing in that respect,” he said. “They are in deep water using all whale rope on the bottom. The expense [of buying and replacing rope] is a big difference.”
Carver became one of Maine’s representatives on the Take Reduction Team, a consortium of private and public organizations and agencies, several years ago. “I think it was Patrice [McCarron, MLA executive director] who asked me. And I don’t like to say no,” Carver said. Walking into a room full of whale advocates wasn’t an experience for the fainthearted. “That first time was quite eye-opening. You’d have thought we were at war. Everyone laid out their positions. But then we started talking with one another,” he said. The TRT ultimately decided to institute the rule banning floating rope, but overall Carver considers the group to have been reasonable over the years. “You can’t go down there and tell someone to shove it. If you show your honest, gut feelings about things, you can get something accomplished,” he said.
Over time the steady voices of McCarron, Carver and other lobstermen who make the trek to Providence for the TRT meetings have engendered respect for the Maine contingent. “When Patrice speaks, they listen!” Still, it’s a long way for a Downeast lobsterman to travel, 900 miles round trip.
Like many fishermen, Carver doesn’t linger on things that he can’t change. But his long career at sea has given him a perspective on what the shifts in coastal fisheries have done to his community. “I think the quality of life was better years ago. I could jump to any job on the ocean. Sandworming supported ten times more people than now. The drop in clamming has been a major change. There’s just a half-dozen clammers here now,” he noted.
The dependence on lobster and the good money to be made in the fishery set up small communities like Beals Island and Jonesport for an uncertain future. “If lobstering hiccups, if we go back to a 50 million-pound fishery, most people will think the world is coming to an end,” Carver said. “But it’s not the end of the world. My dad worked his rear end off but we all got by and we were happy. It was just a different lifestyle. This fishery has been way more than kind to us.”