The Year in Review
I’m not sure that Franklin D. Roosevelt had the Maine lobster industry in mind when he said, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on,” but he certainly captured the innate resiliency of Maine lobstermen. 2020 was a year of unprecedented change wrapped in all the challenges, fear, anxiety and emotional baggage that comes with adjusting to the unknown. As we bid 2020 goodbye, I can say with certainty that this was also a year that united most lobstermen in a shared fight for the future for our fishery.
The challenges we tackled in 2020 were unlike anything the lobster industry has experienced in the past. The impact of each of these issues on their own — COVID, right whales, trade disputes and tariffs, offshore wind expansion, bait restrictions and a national election — would be significant. Nevertheless lobstermen and coastal communities pulled together to meet each challenge head on.
The past year will forever be associated with the pandemic. Each of us understands how difficult it is to be apart from so many friends and family. It is even harder to see our children separated from friends, and heartbreaking to have our elderly isolated from loved ones in their time of greatest need. Maine’s fishing industry was fortunate to have come together in early March for the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, just one week before Governor Mills announced the state’s first COVID restrictions.
On top of the pandemic and the significant policy issues that we faced, 2020 also stands out as a year of deep loss. Maine’ fishing industry said its final goodbye to too many in 2020, including Chris Anderson, Harlan Billings, Ed Blackmore, Robert Blethen, Tim Flynn, Arnie Gamage, Andy Gove, Jeff Matthews, Joe Nickerson, Chris Pinkham, Michael Proper, Dave Provencher, Steve Robbins II, Ethan Ward, to name just some of those who passed away. And I know from personal experience that COVID has taken many more of our friends and loved ones.
If there is any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s the deep recognition that we truly are all in this together. The scale of the pandemic has meant that no one has been left unaffected. The virus, along with the many other threats facing our industry, has served to strengthen lobstermen’s resolve to unite. The lobster industry — and the MLA — draw strength from each lobsterman’s independence, contentiousness, and fierce commitment to his and her heritage. Those are the qualities that, in these difficult days, unite, rather than divide us.
While I am forever an optimist, the issues facing the lobster industry are serious. The MLA, along with many others, has worked very hard to avoid serious harm to lobstermen and their communities.
Despite dire predictions in the spring about lobster price in the face of restricted international markets due to tariffs and disappearing domestic markets as the pandemic unfolded, the lobster fishery defied the odds and fared pretty well. Lobstermen took the market limitations to heart and landings were well paced for demand. Lobster dealers and processors successfully grew retail and direct-to-consumer markets. As lobster landings increased throughout the season, the markets proved to be far more stable than anticipated. Lobstermen were also fortunate to be eligible for several COVID relief programs, including Small Business Administration loans and the Paycheck Protection Program, $20 million through NOAA’s Fisheries Disaster Relief Program and $50 million through the USDA’s Seafood Trade Relief Program.
Other issues did not fade away during the pandemic, and right whales remained at center stage for MLA in 2020. Federal mandates to protect the whales have the potential to shut down the lobster fishery or significantly alter its traditions and the practices that have sustained fishermen and local communities for centuries.
The MLA has moved heaven and earth to get Maine’s side of the story out to the public, federal agencies and the courts. Data indicate that right whales have become increasingly rare along the Maine coast and there is little evidence confirming right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear. Known interactions between right whales and any lobster gear have decreased significantly in the U.S. since 2010 while interactions in Canada have increased dramatically over the same time period. The MLA makes these facts publicly known at all right whale meetings with industry, researchers and agencies. The MLA remains a faithful watchdog and industry advocate in all legal, policy and scientific developments related to right whale conservation.
Early in 2020, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) submitted its proposal for required whale rules to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Maine’s proposal was based on lobstermen input through a series of meetings held in 2019. DMR continued its industry outreach in 2020 to give each lobster zone the opportunity to identify “conservation equivalencies” to tweak Maine’s draft whale plan to better fit each zone’s operational and safety needs while meeting the required 60% risk reduction goal. All seven lobster zones have proposed conservation equivalencies.
Since weakened endlines will likely be a requirement in the new whale plan, MLA worked closely with DMR and lobstermen to measure the strain on vertical lines under a variety of conditions to determine safe working loads at sea. They also documented the breaking strength of vertical lines currently fished and identified and tested a variety of ways to incorporate 1700-pound weak points in vertical lines that could be successfully fished under a variety of conditions. Lobstermen stepped up to make this research possible while innovating a variety of methods to weaken endlines in a manner that will allow gear to be safely hauled back.
In April, the federal judge in DC District Court ruled on the legal questions posed in the lawsuit filed in 2018 by four environmental groups seeking more stringent protection for right whales. The judge found that the NMFS had not met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which in turn meant that the lobster fishery was operating in violation of the law. The court’s next action was to decide how to fix that; a question that profoundly worried many in the lobster fishery.
As an intervenor in this case, the MLA and its legal team worked tirelessly to ensure that lobstermen’s interests were represented in court. At risk was the fishery itself. The judge could order the U.S. lobster fishery closed or could institute severe restrictions in its operation to protect right whales. The MLA made a strong case regarding the lack of evidence linking right whale deaths to the Maine lobster fishery while highlighting the direct evidence of ship strikes and Canadian fishing gear in recent right whale deaths. MLA also brought information to the court on the extensive whale protections put in place by the lobster industry over the past 20 years as well as the economic devastation that severe restrictions would cause lobstermen and coastal communities.
In August, to our great relief, the judge delayed taking action and instead gave NMFS until May 30, 2021 (rather than February 2021, as requested by the plaintiffs) to finalize the whale rules and related Biological Opinion on the lobster fishery. In doing so, the judge averted a closure of the fishery, acknowledged that the probability of entanglement risk to right whales from the lobster fishery during the fall and winter months is slight, and recognized the importance of allowing NMFS to complete the rulemaking process. He also gave weight to the economic harm that closure of the lobster fishery would cause.
The MLA’s critical influence in this case was only possible through the tremendous outpouring of support from individuals and businesses to its Legal Defense Fund.
Similar legal cases seeking to end the permitting of vertical lines have been filed in Massachusetts and Maine. While the Maine case has been put on hold until May 2021 pending the outcome of the DC District case, the judge in Massachusetts ordered that state to obtain an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) under the ESA to continue to permit vertical lines in its state waters fishery. In response, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has proposed rules for its state waters fishery including a seasonal closure from February through April, require all vertical lines break at 1700 pounds, cap the diameter of vertical lines at 3/8” and prohibit the fishing of singles on vessels larger than 29 feet. These regulations lay the foundation for that state’s ITP which is required for its state waters fishery to continue to operate. These rule changes are expected to be implemented in early 2021 in advance of the federal whale plan.
While the lobster industry awaits the release of the federal proposed whale rules and draft Biological Opinion from NMFS, the environmental community continues to press for more immediate and stringent protections for whales. Two petitions for emergency action were filed with NMFS by environmental groups this year, and there remains a strong push for all fixed gear fisheries to transition to ropeless fishing technologies. The MLA continues to strongly oppose ropeless fishing as a conservation strategy to protect right whales in Maine and remains an important voice of reason in these discussions.
Offshore Wind Energy
As if one existential threat to our fishery is not enough, the Maine lobster industry must now face a strong push for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine. The Mills administration has been open about its interest in moving forward with offshore wind as part of its aggressive plan to address climate change but, until November, had not gone on the record with its plans. Before the state even begins its $2 million plan on how best to develop Maine’s offshore wind sector, Gov. Mills abruptly announced in November a plan to apply for a lease to develop a 16-square-mile offshore wind research array located 20 to 40 miles offshore in southern Maine, much to the dismay and disgruntlement of the MLA and many fishermen.
The MLA expressed its strong disappointment that the Governor chose to move forward with an offshore wind “research” project before fishermen and other stakeholders were provided any opportunity to weigh on how, or if, offshore wind might evolve to benefit Maine. The MLA continues raise questions, demand accountability to the fishing industry, and push the state for a clear strategy that will allow fishermen to voice their thoughts on how to protect our fisheries if offshore wind becomes a reality. This is going to be another uphill battle, but the MLA will not sit idly by and let our livelihoods be traded in for the unknown and unproven potential of offshore wind.
2021 Will be a Challenge
There is no doubt that Maine lobstermen will continue to grapple both with whale rules and with offshore wind proposals in 2021, as the pandemic lingers on. The MLA promises to make 2021 a year in which the concerns of the fishing industry are clearly heard in Augusta and in Washington, D.C. and a year in which policy makers are held accountable by fishermen for promises made to protect our livelihoods and communities.
The MLA could not take on these challenges without the incredible work of our Board of Directors and support from so many lobstermen, businesses and community members. So, thank you all.
As always, stay safe on the water.