Last year was a year of great change for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). MLA bid farewell to its President of 27 years, David Cousens, honoring Cousens’ service to Maine’s lobster industry during its annual meeting in March with heartfelt recognitions from Senator King, Senator Collins, Representative Pingree, Commissioner Keliher and members of the Maine Legislature. In addition to saying good-bye to David Cousens, the MLA also bid farewell to several longstanding board members – Arnie Gamage, Dwight Carver and Jack Young. These gentlemen served as tremendous role models and leaders in the Maine lobster industry for many years and they are sorely missed.
With change comes new opportunity. During the annual meeting, the MLA welcomed its new President, Kristan Porter of Cutler, and two new board members, Mike Sargent of Steuben and Jamien Hallowell of South Bristol. Upon accepting the reins as MLA’s new president, Porter told the membership, “I want to thank the board for having faith in me. I’ve got huge shoes to fill and I won’t do it right away. These guys on the MLA Board, their lifeblood is lobsters. I stand with these guys. We don’t always agree. But we will work together to come to decisions that are right for the future of the industry.”
MLA’s new leadership team hit the ground running. In the following month, the MLA weighed in against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) proposal for offshore drilling, emerging proposals for ropeless fishing and weak ropes, and the New England Fishery Management Council (Council) proposals to reduce the herring quota. These proved to be the issues that were on the forefront of MLA’s policy agenda throughout 2018.
In early 2018, the fishing industry was still absorbing the bad news that the right whale population was in decline. Seventeen right whales died in 2017, 12 in Canadian waters. Only five calves were born in 2017 and none in 2018. The population, which had been increasing since the 1990’s, had started a downturn. Accumulating evidence pointed to climate as a crucial factor in the right whale population’s decline. Warmer water led to distribution shifts, poor foraging and reproductive failure. But the impacts of human interactions, such as entanglement, were also implicated as a hindrance to the right whale’s recovery, putting the Maine lobster industry squarely in the crosshairs of the policy-makers and environmental groups.
The U.S. fishing industry was suddenly facing two lawsuits filed in early 2018 against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeking stronger protections for right whales. These cases were combined into one lawsuit, pitting the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Law Foundation and Earth Justice against NMFS. In May, the MLA was granted intervenor status in the court case, giving the association a voice in any decisions that may result from this litigation.
The attack on the fishing industry came on multiple fronts. While the environmental groups led the charge in court, whale researchers demanded radical reforms in how lobstermen fish. A new cure-all to save the right whales emerged in the form of ropeless fishing. Scientists posited that if fishermen take rope out of the water there would be no risk to the whales, allowing whales and fishermen to coexist. The approach has pitted many in the fishing industry, who argue that ropeless fishing cannot be done, against scientists who argue that it can. The MLA remains squarely in opposition to ropeless fishing as a broad-based whale protection measure because the concept is neither operationally nor economically feasible. And the technology does not exist. The MLA has attended numerous meetings to voice its strong opposition to fishing without rope. Though many continue to push hard for ropeless fishing, most agree that it is not yet ready for adoption in commercial fisheries.
Since ropeless fishing is not yet ready for prime time, researchers have hung their hats on 1700-pound weak rope as the next-best cure. The theory is that if a right whale encounters a rope with a low breaking strength, it will be able to break free and avoid serious injury or death. The MLA has voiced many concerns regarding the safety and operational viability of weak ropes, pointing out furthermore that none are commercially available.
To support ropeless fishing and weak rope solutions, the research and environmental community joined forces to put forward the Save the Right Whales Act, introduced in Congress in June. The Act would provide $5 million in federal funds each year for ten years to establish a grant program to fund innovative technology focused on reducing whale entanglements in fishing gear and vessel collisions. The groups pushing for passage of this bill are targeting the fishing industry as the primary threat to right whales and looking to Congress to fund their ropeless fishing and weak rope solutions. The MLA has lobbied against this bill and instead, would support Congressional funding that takes a more comprehensive approach to right whale recovery by also supporting long-term monitoring of Calanus finmarchicus, the whales’ preferred food, and its link to right whale health and reproductive success, as well as development of habitat suitability models, long-term tagging technology and broad-scale right whale surveillance.
In July, the MLA began a new collaboration with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and others on a three-year rope testing project to provide real data on solutions that will work for the fishing industry. The project surveys fishermen on the types and rigging of vertical lines as baseline information. It also assesses the functional breaking strength of vertical lines currently in use and documents the hauling loads experienced by fishermen while fishing under various conditions. The project data will be modeled to assess the conservation benefit of any proposed new management measures.
The MLA organized the whale session at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum and held eight industry whale meetings — one in each lobster zone and a
statewide meeting — to update lobstermen on the emerging whale issue and strategize on Maine’s response. The MLA summarized the feedback received at the industry meetings. That information was then used to respond to NMFS’ request for draft whale proposals for consideration by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) in October. Based on industry feedback, DMR proposed to limit the amount of rope used in surface systems between buoys, establish Maine-specific gear marking, expand gear marking into the exempted waters, and identify a reduced rope strength or rope diameter for Maine lobstermen, based on the results of ongoing research projects with the industry.
Throughout all this, the MLA has been working diligently to set the public record straight on what actually is happening with right whales. The MLA has written several articles and editorials and developed educational materials to inform the public about the Maine lobster industry’s tremendous track record in protecting right whales. Maine has participated in the right whale plan since its inception in 1997 with excellent compliance. Maine gear has only been confirmed as the cause of one right whale entanglement and has not been implicated in any right whale serious injuries or mortalities. NMFS’ serious injury and mortality data since 2016 show that eight of the 20 cases were confirmed to be due to Canadian snow crab gear. The other 12 cases were caused by gear of “unknown” origin. The MLA has demanded that Canada implement a comparable whale protection plan before any Maine or U.S. fishermen are asked to do more.
The MLA voiced its strong concern over the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Technical Memo on right whales. The lobster industry had high hopes that the Memo would take a holistic approach to the stressors and threats facing right whales to provide useful context for pathways to achieve the species’ recovery. Unfortunately, the Memo singles out the Maine lobster fishery, contrary to available data, as posing a high risk to right whales. It makes no reference to other fixed gear fisheries regulated under the ALWTRP or to the outsized role that Canadian fisheries and ship strikes have played in the recent right whale mortality spike. The Memo erodes the trust that has been built over the past 20 years between the lobster industry and the federal government as both worked together to protect the whales.
The MLA has been present at all of the regional whale meetings, representing the Maine lobster fishery at the Stock Assessment Review Group (SAR), Take Reduction Team (TRT) meetings and webinars, the annual Right Whale Consortium meeting, the Ropeless Fishing Consortium meetings, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Right Whale Working group. The MLA has also provided written comments on proposed rules related to right whales, including the proposed rule to allow ropeless fishing in closed areas and the listing of the American lobster fishery as a Category 1 Fishery under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In September, the MLA met with the Maine delegation in Washington, DC, to ensure that they are fully up to speed on the Maine lobster industry’s perspective and strategy on the whale issue. Each pledged to support the lobster industry throughout the management and legal process.
Throughout the early months of 2018, the MLA participated in developing Amendment 8 to the Herring Management Plan through the Council.
Amendment 8 determined the methodology to set the commercial quota allocation for the herring fishery, known as the ABC (Acceptable Biological Catch). Amendment 8 also addressed where and when the midwater fleet will be allowed to fish to address concerns over user conflict and localized depletion of the resource. The MLA’s message throughout has been simple: Maine lobstermen want to conserve the herring stock and keep a steady supply of herring for their bait supply.
In June, the MLA learned that the herring benchmark assessment had determined that the herring biomass had declined significantly. This was due to poor incoming year classes of fish and was not a result of overfishing. Given the low herring biomass, the MLA did not oppose a lowering of the 2018 herring quota to 49,900 metric tons, mirroring 2017 herring landings.
The MLA attended several public hearings on Amendment 8 and submitted comments opposing the use of an aggressive control rule that would result in large cuts to the commercial herring quota. The MLA instead supported continuing the existing method of setting the annual herring quota. The MLA also favored extending the seasonal ban on midwater trawlers in Area 1A to a year-round ban. In September, following a protracted and unrelenting push from the environmental community, the Council adopted an aggressive control rule and banned midwater trawlers within 12 miles from shore. The collective impact of Amendment 8 in combination with the benchmark assessment resulted in the Council’s recommendation of a drastic 71% cut to the herring quota for 2019 and beyond.
The MLA kept lobstermen informed on the evolution of this issue through Landings. It surveyed its members to assess what types of bait lobstermen use and to solicit practical ideas to lessen the bite of the 2019 bait crisis. Survey responses showed that most lobstermen were “concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the pending bait shortage and also that Maine’s bait supply has become very diverse. The survey respondents clearly recognized that the ways in which lobstermen use herring as bait would have to change. They supported the MLA’s efforts in the policy arena, but most considered it the responsibility of individual lobstermen to cope with the herring cuts.
In late October, the MLA sent a letter to NMFS strongly urging it to use its discretion to set the 2019 Atlantic herring quota above the level recommended by the Council. Since the Council did not analyze the wide-ranging negative impacts the herring cuts would have on Maine lobstermen and their small coastal communities, NMFS should use its flexibility to lessen the economic impact while maintaining adequate protection for the herring stock. This would allow Maine’s lobster industry additional time to prepare and respond to the quota reductions. The MLA also urged NMFS to apportion the 2019 quota using the Area sub-allocations used in 2018, placing more fish in Area 1A, and informed NMFS of reports by many Downeast lobstermen of an abundance of small herring in their area. This is noteworthy as it contradicts the findings of the herring stock assessment. In late November, NMFS issued a proposed rule allocating 24,468 metric tons of herring quota for 2019. This is 9,400 metric tons higher than the Council’s recommendation (15,066). In December, the MLA submitted written comments in support the NMFS proposal for 2019 and urged them to increase the amount of fish available to be landed from Area 1A.
Nordic Aquafarms which has proposed to develop a large land-based salmon farm in Belfast has reached out to the MLA to learn more about the bait needs of the lobster industry. Nordic is interested in learning more about Maine’s bait standards to determine if there are ways to develop an approved, disease-free bait source from the head and racks from its salmon processing facilities.
Lobster Reporting Requirements
In February, ASMFC voted on Addendum 26 to the lobster management plan implementing a 100% mandatory reporting requirement in 5 years. The reporting elements are essentially the same as what DMR is currently collecting, with the addition of endline counts and gear configuration to inform whale rules. Data will also be reported by 10 minute areas to improve the spatial resolution of the data. ASMFC recommended 100% reporting for the federal fishery along with the development of a lobster-specific VTR. In the interim, jurisdictions not at 100% harvester reporting must redistribute the current effort associated with harvester reporting to focus on active, as opposed to latent, permit holders. In addition, it establishes a one-year pilot program to explore electronic tracking devices in the fishery which would address the special resolution and enforcement concerns. The MLA opposed the 100% mandatory reporting requirement for Maine lobstermen because analysis showed that 10% reporting provided statistically significant data.
In June, NMFS published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rule-making to consider including ASMFC’s mandatory lobster harvester reporting requirement for federal lobster permit holders. NMFS is looking to require adoption of the existing federal Vessel Trip Report (VTR) program for federal lobster permit holders. The MLA opposed the adoption of the VTR for federal lobster permit holders because that form is not well-suited to collect lobster data and does not include all of the data elements required by ASMFC. MLA instead supports the development of a lobster-specific VTR that includes all of the required data elements before implementing this program for federal lobster permit holders.
The MLA board unanimously adopted a policy statement opposing ocean energy development in the Gulf of Maine in order to protect commercial fishing opportunities, culture and way of life. This includes the Trump Administration’s plan to open areas of the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic coast to oil and gas exploration or development, and proposals, such as Maine AquaVentus, to develop wind projects off the Maine coast.
Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative Reauthorized
The MLA supported the reauthorization of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) through October 2021. The MLMC was reauthorized with a status quo fee structure, a three-year sunset and the formal establishment of an executive committee. The Legislature tasked DMR to investigate whether the fee structure for dealers could be amended to reflect the amount of lobster handled to minimize financial burden on smaller businesses. The DMR will report its findings in January 2019.
The MLA has been participating in development of the MLMC’s 2019 strategic marketing plan. The 2019 marketing plan hifts from a focus on U.S. chefs and consumers to the U.S. supply chain. It seeks to demonstrate the value of Maine new-shell lobster, to market live and value-added product, and to digitally engage decision-makers in the supply chain. The strategy will utilize and build on the tremendous catalog of marketing materials that has been developed. The MLA is concerned that dealers are pushing hard to exert more control over the operations and strategy of the MLMC. They succeeded in establishing a Dealer Advisory Committee to provide additional input to the Collaborative yet did not vote to support the 2019 marketing strategy because they did not believe that the Collaborative was responsive enough to their feedback. The success of the Collaborative depends on the willingness of various board members to work together to find common ground. Despite the fact that harvesters fund nearly 80% of the budget there is equal representation among all sectors on the Collaborative board. The MLA will remain vigilant to ensure that the MLMC continues to address the industry’s fundamental need — to create demand and build value for Maine lobster.
Building a Better Life Jacket
The MLA continued its partnership with the Northeast Center (NEC) Commercial Fishing Advisory Board on their project to identify a life jacket for lobstermen that would be comfortable and safe to work in on deck. To date, NEC researchers have tested nine different life jackets with lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts. Some were tested during winter fishing; others during summer fishing. The NEC is working with life jacket manufacturers to improve designs based on fishermen’s comments. NEC will be sponsoring a life jacket van along the coast in 2019 featuring the most promising life jackets for sale at a discounted rate. The MLA also collaborated with Fishing Partnership Support Services to provide a free safety training on Vinalhaven in April.
Health Insurance Enrollment
The MLA concluded its work as a Health Insurance Navigator in August due to a loss of funding. The MLA bid farewell to its Navigator, Bridget
Thornton, in September. The MLA began offering Navigator services in 2013, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to help so many lobstermen and their families meet their health insurance needs.
Seafood Industry Gubernatorial Forum
In October, the MLA partnered with Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and several other industry groups, to sponsor a forum with the candidates running for Governor. All four candidates — Shawn Moody, Janet Mills, Alan Caron and Terry Hayes — attended. Candidates responded to a variety of questions ranging from who would be our next DMR Commissioner to health care, climate change, right whales, bait shortages, and many more. The Forum was streamed on Facebook live and received more than 2,000 views.
Tier 4 engines
The MLA worked with a Mack Boring engineer and Maine’s Congressional delegation to seek relief for Maine’s boat builders and lobstermen regarding EPA’s strict diesel emission standards for Tier 4 engines. These standards apply to marine engines over 800 horse power. There are currently no Tier 4 engine solutions for Maine lobster boats, leaving those who wish to power new vessels at this level without any engine options.
Lobster Research Collaborative
DMR recognized the need for a collaborative approach to lobster research in Maine and formed the DMR Lobster Research Collaborative (LRC) earlier this year. As a member of the RED Board, the MLA helped to review ten lobster research proposals in April and selected six research projects targeting lobster distribution, shifts in lobster habitat and the changing environment. The LRC is supported by a $340,000 investment from the Lobster Research, Education and Development (RED) fund supported by the sale of lobster license plates.
Support for DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher
In November, the MLA organized an industry association group letter to Governor-elect Mills to support the re-appointment of Patrick Keliher as Commissioner of Maine DMR. The letter was signed by MLA, Maine Lobster Dealers Association, Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Maine Aquaculture Association, Alewife Harvesters of Maine, Elver Harvesters Association, and Independent Maine Marine Wormers Association.
MLA Speaks at Events
In June, MLA’s Executive Director made a presentation on Maine’s efforts to protect whales and the state’s lobster conservation practices at the Capitol Hill Oceans Week (CHOW) conference. The session focused on how fisheries are responding to a changing climate. Congresswoman Pingree gave the opening remarks and the session was attended by members of Congress and staffers. In addition, MLA’s President Kristan Porter spoke on Maine’s efforts to protect whales as part of a panel on right whales at the New England Aquarium.
MLA Membership Benefits
While policy and advocacy are the bread and butter of MLA’s work, we also strive to offer a membership program that is meaningful to lobstermen. The MLA works hard to maintain a robust portfolio of benefits for our members including the MLA’s vessel insurance program; monthly newsletter; weekly email updates on relevant news; weekly lobster, bait and fuel prices; and business discounts.
As we’ve done since 1954, the MLA will continue to pursue its mission to advocate for a sustainable lobster resource and the fishermen and communities that depend on it. The organization has been in business for more than 60 years, a sign of its value to Maine’s lobstering communities. That so much can be accomplished in a single year with so few paid employees is an indication of the dedication of the MLA’s board of directors and staff.
Please take some time to consider all that the MLA has done on your behalf during this past year. And I hope to see you at the Annual Meeting in March!