It’s not everyday that you open your mail and find a check for $5,000. But that is exactly what happened at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) office in May. Offshore lobsterman Alec Phippen, who fishes from Northeast Harbor, sent a $5,000 check to support the MLA’s Legal Defense Fund. And Phippen is not even an MLA member.
“Our jobs are at stake,” he said in a recent interview. “No one else has gone to bat for us.”
The MLA Legal Defense Fund kicked off a $500,000 fundraising campaign in May in response to a finding from the Federal District Court for Washington D.C. that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in permitting the lobster fishery. The judge’s opinion stated that “Congress enacted the ESA in 1973 to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” NMFS must comply with the Endangered Species Act. The Maine lobster fishery, the mainstay of the state’s coastal economy, could be shut down or severely limited as a consequence.
“This case could lead to closure of the world’s most sustainable fishery and we cannot let that happen. Right whales are not dying in Maine lobster gear,” MLA executive director Patrice McCarron said. “Lobstermen have done everything they have been asked to protect right whales and remain committed to doing their part to save the species.”
Phippen, who got his student license when he was nine years old, is modest about his contribution. “It didn’t seem like that much money to me. I told the guys who fish around me what I’d done and asked them to step up too,” he said.
Phippen noted that should the lobster fishery shut down, the trickle-down effect on communities throughout the coast would be catastrophic. “There’s a lot of money [from lobster] coming into the state and lobstermen spend most of that in the state. Think about the dock workers, truck drivers, boat yards, banks. It would be a colossal hit to the whole state,” he said.
Eric Emmons also felt compelled to do something to save the lobster fishery. In addition to making a contribution, he and fellow lobsterman Cody Nunan went to all the lobstermen in their homeport of Cape Porpoise and asked them to contribute to the Legal Defense Fund. “It worked well. We asked them to put their contribution in a sealed envelope and then collected the envelopes. I think about 80% of the guys gave something,” he said.
Emmons was amazed to find many lobstermen in his harbor did not fully understand the threat they were facing. “The decision by the judge surprised a lot of guys around here,” he said. “They didn’t know anything was going on.”
Emmons began fishing full-time when he graduated from high school in 1988. The last ten years of fishing have been “decent,” he said, with 2018 being among his best years ever. Like many lobstermen, he is accustomed to heading out to sea whenever he wants to. “My biggest worry is that they will put in place seasonal closures. Look what’s happened in Massachusetts. Or ropeless fishing, my God!” he said.
Travis Reynolds, who fishes from Spruce Head, made his donation after he learned the verdict of a court case in the US District court in Boston brought by Max Strahan, a longtime whale activist, against the state of Massachusetts. In late April the judge ruled in favor of Strahan giving the state only 90 days to obtain an Incidental Take Permit under the Endangered Species Act, putting that state’s lobster fishery in jeopardy. On May 15 Strahan filed a similar case in Maine to prohibit the use of vertical lines in coastal waters.
“I know that my livelihood is in jeopardy especially if they are talking about closures or shutting us down one hundred percent,” Reynolds said. Reynolds, who received his student license when he was eight years old, has two young children, Owen and Rose. His mother, Daphne, still lobsters on her own vessel. His wife’s father lobstered for many years.
“I’m worried that my kids won’t be able to carry on this tradition. I feel we need to raise as much money as we possibly can to stop these activists taking away our livelihood,” he said. Other Spruce Head lobstermen that Reynolds knows have been taking a set amount of their catch each week and donating that amount of money to the Legal Defense Fund.
Phippen hopes that lobstermen from every harbor on the coast will contribute to the Fund in order to fight for the fishery. “If everyone who would be affected gave $500 we would be talking about millions of dollars. That’s not even a half a day of fishing for most,” he said.