In this line of work one thing I can always count on is a phone call from a lobsterman telling me just how things are going to be. The subject may be the lobster price, the price of bait or fuel, or management changes that are coming.
From the conversation, you learn which problems are unique to an individual, which ones are likely to work themselves out, and which ones you need to roll up your sleeves and try to fix. Lobstering has been so good too so many that, honestly, the days when guys would regularly call the office to give me an earful had become few and far between.
That has all changed. Today’s circumstances are a stark contrast to the comfortable place many lobstermen and the MLA have enjoyed in recent years. As the director of MLA, my job has always been to work with the MLA Board and members to make sure that the forces the affect the lobster industry — and there are a lot of them — do not undermine our industry, traditions and sustainable fishing practices. To do this requires the MLA to act for the fishery as a whole; that is why MLA’s work is often viewed as controversial.
This year is one in which we must navigate uncharted waters. Lobstermen are opening their season in the steepest market decline since the Great Depression. Predictions suggest that the severe constriction of the food service and entertainment sectors will translate directly into a lack of customers for the millions of pounds of lobster we have yet to land. Simple economics dictate that if you have more product than customers, price goes down. Lobster is particularly vulnerable to price deflation due to the tremendous risk in holding and moving live product.
Add to this uncertainty the fact that currently there is not a single person who can tell lobstermen how to prepare for the next round of whale rules. Despite having created one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, the lobster industry finds itself on the wrong side of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We know that the outcome of the pending court cases and the long anticipated new Biological Opinion on the lobster fishery will require us to change how we fish. The changes will be significant, but we do not know what they will be or when they will need to be in place.
Bottom line, thousands of owner-operated businesses that sustain our entire coastal economy are flying blind and cannot plan for the next few months and years.
While there is no crystal ball to tell us how this will play out, the MLA is here. We’ve been here for more than 65 years, through the good and the bad and somehow we, and you, have always made it through. In this time of vast uncertainty, there are three things I know to be true. First, the MLA is not going anywhere. We will put every bit of our more than six decades of knowledge and experience to work to chart a steady course for lobstermen to get through these rough waters. Second, this industry is resilient and we always find a way through. Third, these next few years will truly test us all.
The MLA has always fought for what is in the best interest of the lobster fishery — the Maine lobster fishery. We do not work for one harbor, or one zone, or one area of the coast. When we take a stand, it is on behalf of the entire fishery. I can assure you that working through a contentious issue at MLA board meeting with 21 lobstermen, each from a different harbor and each with a different perspective, is a lot more difficult than chewing over an issue at the local wharf. The board takes time, listening and debating what is the right thing to do for the industry as a whole. It can be uncomfortable, but true leadership is never easy. It leads to tough decisions. Not surprisingly, our board members are often met with harsh criticism from fellow lobstermen.
Still, when you’ve been around for more than half a century, you get used to harsh judgement. You cherish those who understand the value of MLA’s steady activism on behalf of the industry, year after year and decade after decade. No one can come out swinging every time and expect to find people willing to work with you. It is a credit to our loyal members that the MLA has been successful in ensuring that our lobster fishery has remained as strong as it has been. It is due to you that we are able to stand up to the fierce currents that are setting against us now.
While there are times when you need flexibility, there are also times that require you to stand your ground, times when you are staring down the barrel of a gun. The ESA and the MMPA are a loaded gun held by the environmental community and pointed straight at our fishery. The MLA and our legal team provide a shield to temper the blow from that gun, and we are standing our ground to fight for your future.
Look around your town. The local grocery store is supported by the income from your boat. The local school is paid for by your property taxes. The boatyard, marine electronics store and bait shop are all thriving because of you. If lobstermen are hurt or lose their businesses, others will be hurt too. There is too much at stake for us to let this fishery fail. We cannot let that happen.
We must all work together to keep the ship heading on course through this truly historic year. If you are not yet an MLA member, I urge you to join today. Your membership dues ensure that the MLA has a professional staff in place ready to respond to whatever issue comes next (currently only 2.5 people). And if you have not yet donated to the Legal Defense Fund, please consider supporting us today. It will take all of us joining together to get through this.
I am grateful for the outpouring of support and good will we have received, so thank you.
As always, stay safe on the water.