“We can’t afford to be passive.”
That was the message from Machias Savings Bank president Larry Barker concerning the suite of court cases related to North Atlantic right whale protections that could decimate the Maine lobster fishery. Machias Savings Bank donated $10,000 to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) Legal Defense Fund (LDF) to provide support for the MLA’s efforts to represent lobstermen in these cases.
And Barker was not alone. There is broad business support for the LDF throughout the state from businesses large and small, such as Colby and Gale Fuel in Damariscotta, Brooks Trap Mill in Thomaston, and Hamilton Marine in Searsport.
For Barker, the issue is both local and statewide. “We serve fishermen from Calais to Portland and we’ve done so for 150 years. Many of my good friends are lobstermen. My son is a lobsterman [out of Machiasport]. This lawsuit is ridiculous,” said Barker.
He was referring to the case proceeding in federal District Court in Washington, D.C., brought by four environmental organizations against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In April, the judge ruled that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it issued a biological opinion in 2014 on the lobster fishery without including an Incidental Take Permit for right whales. This decision on its own will have dramatic repercussions within the fishery because NMFS has never issued an Incidental Take Permit for right whales. The judge will also rule on how the agency can best correct that violation, a decision that could also affect the fishery.
“The issue extends beyond lobstermen,” Barker said. “The ripple effect will be huge. Lobstermen come to us for many different things, like business financing, working capital, home loans. But there are all the other companies related to the fishery as well. Trap companies, bait companies, trucking companies. The lobster industry is the backbone of the coast.”
Figures compiled by the Sunrise County Economic Council show just how important lobstering is in Washington and Hancock counties. Approximately 1,100 residents work full-time as lobstermen, either as captains or as sternmen. While aquaculture, primarily salmon, is also an important component of the two counties’ economies, it employs between 75 and 100 people, a fraction of those connected to lobstering.
“If lobstermen have a bad year so does everyone else,” Barker said succinctly.
In July, philanthropist Donald Sussman, who lives part of the year in the midcoast area, made a substantial contribution to the LDF. “Maine and lobstering are indivisible. I deeply value the Maine fishermen whose livelihood and way of life are jeopardized by climate change and by the overreaching measures that have been proposed,” he wrote in an email. “Supporting Maine’s lobstermen and women, many of whom are my neighbors, is part of protecting Maine communities and working waterfronts, and I am happy to lend my support.”
Brooks Trap Mill in Thomaston supplies fishing gear to lobstermen throughout the state. The family-run company was the first to make a donation to the LDF soon after the judge’s decision in April. “My sister Julie, my brother Mark and I know how important the lobster industry is for so many people living in Maine, including Brooks Trap Mill,” said Stephen Brooks. “We donated immediately in hopes of inspiring and encouraging others to do the same.”
Hamilton Marine, which recently opened its sixth marine supplies store in Kittery, knows the importance of lending support when it’s needed. “The lobster industry is important to the entire state of Maine,” said company president Wayne Hamilton. “[The right whale case] is a serious issue that could affect a good portion of our customers.” Hamilton is particularly aware of all the changes lobstermen have made over the years to protect right whales, from breakaway lines to sinking rope and now a series of purple marks on vertical lines. “They have tried. There has got to be a way to work this out. To shut down the fishery would be a terrible thing,” he said. “The whole coastal economy would take a huge hit.”
At the end of July, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust pledged funds to the LDF as well. In a letter accompanying the donation, Jack Frost, director community giving, said, “Bar Harbor Bank & Trust recognizes the challenges facing the Maine lobstermen, especially given a recent federal court ruling which could severely threaten the future of the lobster fishery… We commend you for the leadership and action to aid lobstermen and all the related small business sector across Maine which is the lifeblood that keeps our small coastal communities sustainable and vibrant.”
Matt Poole, president of Colby & Gale Fuel in Damariscotta, didn’t hesitate to contribute $10,000 to the LDF. Poole, who grew up in Port Clyde, got his commercial lobster license as a child and fished throughout his school years. “I was the kid who didn’t like high school and bragged about making more money than the teachers,” he laughed.
Poole recognizes the impact that restrictions of the lobster fishery will have on his neighbors and customers. “You would have to be blind not to see what the industry means to everyone on the coast. The financial impact is the most alarming and scary aspect of all this. The majority of businesses on the coast, whether it’s tourism or banking, make money from the lobster fishery,” Poole said.
In addition to an outright contribution, Colby & Gale will also contribute 5 cents of the price of each gallon of diesel and gasoline the company sells to the numerous commercial wharfs and docks in the midcoast region. Poole himself has gone a step further. “I still lobster out of the South Bristol Co-op,” he said. “Not a lot of traps, about 35. But I’ve asked them to take whatever profit I make from those traps at the end of the season and send it to the LDF.”
You too can make a contribution to the Legal Defense Fund! Give online or by mailing your contribution to: MLA LDF, 2 Storer St, Ste 203, Kennbunk ME 04043