Indeed, these are weird times. Maine’s 4,500 independent owner-operator lobstermen are navigating what feels like never-before-experienced conditions of uncertainty. Tradition is something that this industry values deeply and credits for much of its success. While these days may feel brand new, the fishery has faced challenges before and met them with characteristic smarts, humor and chutzpah.
This year, while we have been homeschooling our kids or adjusting our fishing approach for the 2020 season, Stonington has lost four remarkable pioneers who each — without a doubt — shaped the lobster fishery that we celebrate today: Ed Blackmore, Harlan Billings, Andrew Gove, and Steve Robbins. To see them fully it’s worth looking back at the decades, starting in the 1970s.
In the midst of a pandemic we can’t gather and celebrate the way each of these larger-than-life icons of Maine commercial fisheries deserve. Instead, we can reflect on their impact, who they were, and what made them able to make such marks in our community. They are, and should be, men who are the subject of stories told far and wide along the coast and out at sea. Ed was to bull-headed advocacy what Harlan was to commercial fishing shipyard services, what Andy was to lobster boat races, and what Stevie was to fishing the Hague Line. Driving hard and fast and taking chances, none was a stranger to risk– sometimes finding trouble, but staying afloat. Attention to detail, a sense of humor, and a willingness to push (real and perceived) boundaries were cores to each man’s character, making them the profound influencers for lobster fishing, starting in the 1970s and stretching to the recent past.
It’s hard to remember now that when Ed Blackmore took the reins of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), to V-notch was not a New England-wide rule. The IRS was knocking at the door, wanting fishermen to pay back taxes on their sternmen, whom IRS considered employees, and Massachusetts draggers legally targeted lobsters with no limits. Eddie was at the helm of the MLA through all those fights and more: tough, determined, and single-minded in defense of Maine lobstermen.
If you look back at the Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) lobster landings graph, the 1970s were a low point for the fishery, nowhere near the cash flow we now know. Harlan risked great financial loss pursuing his vision for Billings Diesel and Marine to become the largest full-service shipyard supporting commercial fishermen this far east in Maine. He literally moved mountains to fill the Moose Island Quarry to make the boatyard and workshops so he could be sure to repair boats as fast as possible and get them back on the fish. For the last 20 years, the Shipyard has served as a base for the Maine-New Hampshire Inshore Trawl Survey for nearly a week every spring and fall.
Uncle Andy is perhaps most famous for his fastest working lobster boat in the race circuit. Gove’s 36-foot Uncle’s UFO was the boat to beat for nearly two decades, setting course records of over 50 mph. Andy kept racing until his late 80s, and continued fishing a few years after that. He started lobstering in 1937 and like most fishermen of his era fished multiple fisheries. In the1970s he took flight lessons for a pilot license and bought a Cessna 150 to spot fish for the herring fleet. Andy may have been one of the first to live by the philosophy of fishing smarter, not harder.
Steve Robbins, Jr. pioneered offshore lobstering out of Stonington in the 1970s, with wooden lobster traps! A life-long musician, you may also know him from YouTube fame for his impromptu Church of the Morning After jam sessions in his shop on the Stonington waterfront. Early on, Steve was active in the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association to protect lobster gear from conflict with trawlers offshore, and to push for rules that made sense for the offshore fleet. When the U.S.-Canadian Hague Line in the Gulf of Maine was decided in 1984, he lost half his fishing area. When he pushed it, the Canadian Coast Guard took him in to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia! He handled all this with a sense of humor that is legendary.
These men were at once hard-drivers, salt of the earth, and influencers. That paradox was also their strength and reality. They didn’t aim to be influencers, but they were. They saw opportunities where others might have seen none. They were deeply committed to the future of their shoreside and commercial fishing communities and the underlying code of work, self-reliance, innovation, and ingenuity.
The pressures experienced in the 1970s and the following decades were unprecedented then, just as our current situation is for us now. Who among us is seeing the opportunities to influence and shape the future of our fishery and of our fishing communities, not just for ourselves but for future generations who will be facing the next challenges?
Carla Guenther is chief scientist at Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington.