You see it when you drive into town. The simple clapboard houses along Route 187 have ocean views that reach to the horizon. Head down the road a bit and you come to Moosabec Marine, Hamilton Marine and the Jonesport Shipyard. Across the harbor on Beals Island are lobster pounds, lobster boats, bait shops and the seafood processor A.C. Inc. What you don’t see are art galleries, T-shirt shops, and high-end restaurants. Jonesport is a town that has long turned to the sea, whose livelihood today is based on one fishery: lobster.
In 2019, according to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Jonesport lobstermen landed 2,929,282 pounds of lobster. Vessels homeported in Beals landed 5,993,452 pounds. At an average price per pound of $4.82, the two ports brought more than $43 million into the local economy last year. That level of economic activity means a lot in a county with Maine’s highest 2019 unemployment rate (6.1%).
There’s a saying in Maine: “You can’t eat beauty.” While tourists and summer residents admire the coast’s splendor, its residents know that living there can be tough, particularly in the region east of Ellsworth. In Hancock and Washington counties one doesn’t see the sorts of jobs available in the southern areas of the state — manufacturing, retail, office work. Here people derive their sources of income from the water.
That way of life hangs by a single thread. In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States and Conservation Law Foundation sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), arguing that the agency was not fulfilling its legal mandate to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales under a suite of federal laws. The case was assigned to the Federal District Court for Washington D.C.
In April 2020, Judge James Boasberg ruled that NMFS had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in permitting the lobster fishery. The judge’s opinion states that “failure to include an ITS [Incidental Take Statement] in its 2014 BiOp [Biological Opinion] after finding that the American lobster fishery had the potential to harm the North Atlantic right whale at more than three times the sustainable rate is about as straightforward a violation of the ESA as they come.” He further states, “Congress enacted the ESA in 1973 to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” As a consequence, the judge could require NMFS to close or severely restrict the lobster fishery in order to meet the requirements of the law.
“If the lobster fishery were to go away, it would be devastating,” said Will Tuell, state representative from East Machias and a member of the Joint Committee on Marine Resources. “My district is mostly lobstermen. They have families. They spend their money at local businesses, like restaurants and hardware stores. If the fishery were to close, it would be far more devastating than the coronavirus over the next twenty years.”
H & H Marine, Steuben; Hancock Marine Service; James H. Rich Boatyard in Bernard; Libby’s Boat Shop in Beals; Nautilus Marine Fabrication in Trenton; Midcoast Marine Electronics in Rockland; Great Island Boat Yard in Harpswell; York Harbor Marine. The list of small businesses related to the lobster fishery goes on and on.
“A general observation is that there is probably no fishery or aquaculture sector that will match the magnitude and value of Maine’s lobster fishery,” said Paul Anderson, executive director of the Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. “If you look at landings data, even when salmon farming is having a good year, the total value is dwarfed by the lobster value, plus they really don’t employ that many people.”
The lobster fishery sustains thousands of businesses and communities. Lobster is not only a Maine icon, but is an economic pillar for Maine tourism and the coastal economy. “This is an urgent situation for Maine’s lobster fishing families and also for everyone in Maine who values our cultural heritage and the economic impact tourism brings to the state,” said Amy Lent, executive director of the Maine Maritime Museum.
The ripple effect of the lobster fishery closing or being sharply reduced will impact not only local businesses and the tax revenues of small communities but also could change the basic character of those communities. “The exodus that could happen if there are severe cutbacks in the lobster fishery with no reasonable alternatives will change the demographic of many rural coastal communities. I fear that in that vacuum, the gates will swing wide open to gentrification, which could change those communities forever, shifting them away from working waterfront communities to vacation and seasonal resident communities,” Anderson said.
A research study published by Colby College economics professor Michael Donohue in 2018 examined the economic value of the lobster supply chain, those businesses who are connected to lobster after it leaves the wharf. He found that the wholesale lobster distribution supply chain contributed an estimated $967.7 million to the Maine economy and supported more than to 5,500 jobs in 2016. Those are the jobs found in companies like Ready Seafood, Beals Jonesport Coop, Seaview Lobster, or Island Seafood.
“Nor will other commercial fisheries in aggregate or aquaculture enterprises at the size and scale that Maine’s coast allows can employ as many people as the lobster fishery does on the water, on the docks, and in the post-harvest sectors,” Anderson said emphatically.