Steaming Ahead: Maine Lobstermen’s Association Update

The Maine lobster industry is facing unprecedented challenges. The magnitude of these issues is like none that we have seen before. Next year lobstermen will have to deal with massive bait cuts and skyrocketing bait prices. We will be battling to stave off sweeping changes to the fishery in the government’s efforts to save North American right whales. A newly elected Maine Governor and administration will be in office, whose actions in the coming years remain uncertain.
How Maine lobstermen respond to these challenges will be a true test of what this industry is made of. Will we fight one another? Will we play victim? Will we point fingers? Or will we have the fortitude to come together and find ways to continue our legacy as stewards of one the world’s most sustainable fisheries?

Next year’s reduction in herring quota will affect all Maine’s lobstering towns, such as Corea, above. What are the options available to lobstermen to survive the crisis? MLA photo.

The MLA has been here for 64 years. We know what it means to fight for Maine lobstermen and the many small communities that depend on the fishery. It is no coincidence that MLA was the only Maine lobster organization to weigh in on the bait issue and to attend many meetings over the past several years to fight for our industry. As an organization, we have never been shy about tackling the issues that matter to our members. Our ultimate success in the future, however, will rest with lobstermen. How do we decide what is right and what is wrong for our industry? The MLA listens, and the MLA advocates. We listen to lobstermen to understand their concerns and what they need to make a living. We listen to scientists to ensure that we remain strong stewards of our marine resources. The board listens, it discusses (sometimes for months) and processes all sides of the issue, and then the MLA pushes for measures to preserve our industry, our future and our way of life.
The MLA was started back in 1954 by lobstermen who understood that they would be stronger and havew a more powerful voice if they worked together. The MLA takes the long view for our industry, while not sacrificing our ability to survive in the short-term.
The issues we face on bait and whales are tough. We are going to need to think outside of the box. We are going to have to contemplate change at a fundamental level.
Some changes will be forced upon us as we cope with legal and management realities. But there are also changes that we can choose for ourselves that will help us through these tough times and make our industry stronger in future years. I’m thinking that lobstermen will have to be like trees. A tree has deep roots in one place and carries a heavy canopy of leaves throughout the summer. When a storm comes, that tree needs to bend in order to survive. Its roots remain in place while it flexes and turns in the wind. And as long as it bends, it does not break.
Lobstermen typically resist change yet at the same time you’d be hard-pressed to find a lobsterman who doesn’t have ideas on how to make things better. Ideas are a place to start, but real solutions to daunting challenges will only happen if individuals engage and are open to change. There are no easy answers. We are going to have to roll up our sleeves and talk about all the options, no matter how unpopular they are.
For example, how can lobstermen survive the bait shortage next year? At first glance, you might say, “No way. It will ruin me!” But there are simple actions that can help us through the problem, such as further diversifying the bait supply and cutting the amount of herring used per bait bag. After that there are additional steps to take, such as to stop dumping bait bags and use bait savers where you can. Don’t tell me that it’s impossible to use less herring: Necessity is the mother of invention and I have no doubt lobstermen will find creative ways to lessen the blow of the herring shortage. It will happen naturally for most; others will respond to peer pressure.
But what about some of the tougher choices? Lobstermen often talk to me after meetings or call the office, wondering if we should talk about trap reductions. Would Maine lobstermen be better off financially if they fished 600 or 400 traps? Could lobstermen reduce operating costs with fewer traps yet maintain their catches as a way to offset the bait shortage and price increases? Some think that would work; others strongly disagree.
How will our industry respond to the federal push for stricter whale rules? What are lobstermen willing to do to make Maine gear safer for whales? Will you insist that you can’t make it without the rope that you are currently using or can you fish with smaller diameter vertical lines? Maine must come up with something that will work for the whales as well as lobstermen or we will have to swallow draconian solutions from scientists (ropeless fishing), the conservation community (weak rope) and the federal government (closures). National Marine Fisheries Service, right whale scientists and the conservation community are already pushing hard for Maine to have much less lobster gear in the water. In order to not be blindsided, we must decide on what we are willing to do to protect the whales. And to do that, we must talk the issue out, not hide our heads in the sand.
There’s that old Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times!” Well, we certainly do. There are plenty of questions, but no clear answers. I truly hope that Maine lobstermen can come together to work through these significant challenges. Many, I know, are happy to move forward with an “every man for himself — survival of the fittest!” mentality. Sure, that’s a great approach for those who have paid off their boat, their home, and the truck, whose children are out of the house and whose health remains robust. But what about everyone else? What does that attitude do for the long-term health of the lobster industry, for our kids, for the economies of our coastal communities?
When times are tough, decisions are hard. Making the right choice is complicated. But not talking about all the choices, painful as they may be, is just plain dangerous.

As always, stay safe on the water.