Each day Maine lobstermen roll out of bed in the pre-dawn hours, make their way to the wharf, collect their sternmen and row out to their boats. They bait up, if they haven’t done so the previous day, and start out to sea as the sun breaks the horizon. For many hours they haul individual traps, empty and rebait the trap, and move on to the next.
This has been the pattern since lobstering first began in Maine, today aided with certain improvements, such as combustion engines and hydraulic haulers. Other elements of the fishery have remained constant as well, such as the regulation that all commercial lobster boats are operated by the license holder, that dragger-caught lobsters cannot be landed in Maine, that lobster licenses cannot be sold or transferred to others.
The latter regulation has stands out in comparison with other states’ lobster fisheries. In Massachusetts, for example, permits for various species including lobster can be bought and sold. A Massachusetts Coastal Access Permit for offshore lobster, fluke, scup, sea bass, shellfish, sea scallop and squid was listed for sale for $75,000 in late August. Another, for Massachusetts Coastal Lobster Area 1, was offered for $23,500.
“The fact that there is no transfer of Maine lobster licenses is key to the character of the fishery,” explained Joshua Stoll, assistant professor of marine policy at the University of Maine. Stoll, originally from Harrington, understands deeply the unique qualities of the Maine lobster fishery. “It supports thousands of small boats and vibrant coastal communities. And this is becoming increasingly uncommon.”
If a license to fish can be bought or transferred to another, then the local communities inevitably lose, according to Stoll. “When the license is transferable, then the person can monetize the license. Local people can’t pay for it, but an out-of-state person or company can. Eastport and Stonington won’t be the places the licenses are, it will be Boston or New York. The pattern is like the law of gravity — it pretty much happens all over,” he said.
Management of the Maine lobster fishery has been shared since 1996 between the state, through the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and seven regional lobster zone councils. The zone councils have the ability to set limits on the number of new entrants to their zone, the number of traps allowed per lobsterman, and other rules that control fishing effort. That such local control is still in effect, despite an unprecedented increase in landings and value in the last two decades, is unusual, according to Carl Wilson, director of DMR’s Science Bureau.
“The lobster fishery is very large and yet is still largely small boats, fishing near shore, and community-based. Its relative stability while increasing in landings in not the norm,” Wilson said. “Many other high-value fisheries have gone to quota systems.”
He credits some of the lobster population’s strength over the past decades to the conservation ethics of Maine lobstermen. Such practices as V-notching females, returning egg-bearing females and short and large lobsters to the water, and escape vents in the traps are deeply embedded in the fabric of lobstering. “These conservation measures wouldn’t work if people didn’t believe in them,” he pointed out. The pressures of change — from warmer waters, new regulations designed to protect right whales, fluctuating market demand — threaten to alter that fabric in the future.
“These pressures will test the very character of the fishery going forward,” Wilson said. “Right now the lobster fishery is fished hard. The race to catch lobsters and that ethos are in a fine balance. If people believe in the rules for the fishery, then those tenets should continue if the resource goes down. At least that’s the question and the hope.”
In his academic work, Stoll has investigated different aspects of Maine lobstermen’s resiliency in the face of economic and regulatory pressures. “During the last 35 years rarely if ever is the fishery dealing with one crisis at a time. There are always many things,” he said. Stoll found that lobstermen have built up a lot of social and political capital at all levels of governance and that capital has helped them cope with a barrage of multiple pressures. Currently the pressures are many. “Threats today include the slow creep of privatization of the marine resource and commodifying access to it,” Stoll said. “That can quickly marginalize the small-scale fishery and coastal communities.”
One of the enduring traits of the Maine lobster fishery, which was well documented by Professor Jim Acheson in his 1987 book The Lobster Gangs of Maine, is that it remains linked to place and family. Acheson noted at the time the tightly meshed nature of the small lobstering harbors along the coast, where multiple generations pursue fishing and relatives work in related businesses. That web of relationships anchored in one place adds to the resiliency of the fishery.
Yet at the same time, as University of Maine lobster researcher Robert Steneck and others pointed out in a 2011 article published in Conservation Biology, lobstering communities are in a “gilded trap.” An abundance of lobster and a lack of access to other fisheries motivates more to enter the fishery and for those in it to continue to invest in boats and gear. “Gilded traps are a type of social trap in which collective actions resulting from economically attractive opportunities outweigh concerns over associated social and ecological risks or consequences. Large financial gain creates a strong reinforcing feedback that deepens the trap,” the article stated. Should the lobster population decline sharply, no amount of community resiliency could buffer the economic impact.
“I’m leery about predicting the collapse of the lobster fishery,” Stoll said. “Since 2000, the fishery has done nothing but grow. It has shown great innovation.”
“If a lobsterman is given the opportunity to stay on the water, he will find ways to remain successful.” Wilson recounts the conversation he had with a younger Downeast lobsterman recently. “He was pretty clear. ‘I want to know what’s coming so that I can learn to adapt because I am going fishing.’ He simply wants information so he can plan for his future.”
Next month: Regulations, management foster diverse fleet, economic success in Maine lobster fishery