Backbone Of Coastal Economy At Risk As Lobster Fishery Threatened

The lobster fishery is integrated into the fabric of the Maine coast, giving its small towns and harbors a firm economic and cultural foundation. This wasn’t always true. Once Maine fishermen moved among fisheries based on the season of the year: lobster in the summer and fall, scallops and shrimp in the winter, halibut in the spring, herring in the summer, clam digging year-round. But those options have shrunk and, in some cases such as northern shrimp, vanished entirely. The coast of Maine is in a “gilded trap,” as lobster biologist Robert Steneck wrote in 2011, largely dependent on one lucrative species, the American lobster.

Many factors suggest that the fishery will not be the same ten years from now. Conditions in the Gulf of Maine are changing with rising surface and deepwater temperatures which influence the behavior and success of the lobster population. The most pressing threat comes from federal regulations designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose numbers have diminished sharply in recent years. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regulations, known as the ten-year whale plan, require Maine lobstermen to reduce the risk of gear entanglement to the whales by 98% by 2030.

How important is the lobster fishery to the Maine coast? What will be the economic impact of a reduction in the harvest due to regulations or to a changing Gulf of Maine? We begin this three-part series with a look at Downeast Maine and Stonington.

The future of Maine’s fishing communities such as Stonington is directly linked to the future of Maine’s lobster fishery. Photo by T. Yoder, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.

It’s a long drive on Route 15 until you see St. Mary’s Catholic church and the ocean beyond it. Clapboard houses lead to Main Street, Boyce’s Motel, the Harbor Café, a real estate office, and the Stonington Opera House. Behind the street, to the east, is the true heart of Stonington — a fleet of lobster boats at their moorings on a cold November afternoon.

Perhaps no community in Maine is as indebted to the lobster as the town of Stonington. Stonington is Maine’s number one port by value, and that value comes from lobster.

Stonington’s 143 commercial lobstermen last year hauled in more than $89 million worth of lobsters, according to Department of Marine Resources (DMR) figures, continuing the town’s standing as Maine’s most lucrative port. In previous years that figure danced around $106 million in 2019 and $114 million in 2018. Nearly every one of those dollars is spent in Maine, moving quickly in to the local and broader Downeast economy.

Ron Trundy is general manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-operative. In 2021 the Co-op’s 70 to 80 members hauled around 3 million pounds of lobster, which the Co-op sold for approximately $20 million, according to Trundy. “It’s been a good year. Poundage is up and the price is phenomenal,” Trundy said. At the end of the season, each Co-op member receives a dividend based on the number of pounds he or she has landed. That dividend adds many thousands of dollars to a lobsterman’s annual profits. And where does that money go? “It trickles down everywhere, around here and up to Bangor and Ellsworth where they go to buy vehicles,” Trundy said. “Lobster is what keeps this island afloat. Tourism is nothing compared to what these guys spend.”

Money is like rain coming through a leak in the roof – it spreads invisibly throughout a structure. The money made by each individual lobsterman leaks away from him or her every day. One day it goes to pay down the bait bill, another day it flows to the fuel dock, yet another day it goes to repair the truck’s transmission. A lobsterman’s income also flows into the local property taxes that support local schools, to the grocery store, to the dentist, to the local diner, to Reny’s department store. It is everywhere and largely unseen. That flow of money is called the multiplier effect.

“The actual process of creating multipliers is quite complex,” explained Amanda Rector, Maine state economist, in an email. “It involves mapping out the relationships between all of the different sectors in a region’s economy, determining how much of what is spent stays within the region and how much flows out of the region, and then applying those multipliers to an estimate of the actual amount being spent in the region for a particular purpose.” While the precise multiplier figure for Maine lobstermen’s revenue has not been established, the fact of it is evident on Deer Isle.

“If they have money in their pocket, they will spend it,” said a Barter Lumber Co. employee who asked to remain anonymous. “Lobstermen spend money on a regular basis, to do things for the boat, upgrade their shop, re-shingle a roof. We have a lot of house accounts that are regularly paid off at the end of the year.”

Asked how much of the company’s revenues comes from lobstermen, the employee explained that a portion of the business comes from summer people and maintenance of their homes. “We are a little more diversified but obviously a big piece of our business is lobstermen. If they run into a problem with their revenue stream, it will have a major impact on us. There aren’t a lot of other ways here to make a living. For so many families that is how they get by.”

According to Waypoints: Livelihoods, a report published by the Island Institute in 2018, the lobster fishery dominates nearly every coastal community in the state. Commercial licenses are held in every island and coastal town. Despite waiting lists to receive a lobster license in most of the state’s seven lobster zones, the report noted an increase of 735 licenses, or 15% growth, since 2015. “An estimated 3,262 are active licenses responsible for as many as 6,000 jobs on the water. Young people are still entering the lobster fishery despite volatility in landings and value,” the report stated.

Like their parents before them, new lobstermen are starting families, buying or building homes, serving on the local school board, volunteer fire department or as selectmen. They are putting their money into local banks and taking out loans from those same banks. Any change to the fishery would worry a bank like Camden National, according to Renee Smyth, chief marketing officer at Camden National.

Camden National is a $5 billion bank. It holds $20 to $30 million in loans to the lobster industry. “It is a very important industry to us because we are in those [geographic] areas. The fishery adds to our economy and our communities. We care a lot about the industry,” Smyth said. While Camden National Bank is a publicly traded corporation, it draws much of its business from small businessmen like lobstermen, offering commercial loans, mortgages, boat loans.
“The ripple effect would be very concerning. Even if the lobster fishery dropped by half, that would be very concerning,” Smyth said.

Lobstermen, like Stonington captain Matt Shepard send millions of dollars into local communities, supporting stores, schools,and small businesses throughout the year. Photo by T. Yoder, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries

Jonathan Alley, Downeast and northern regional manager at Machias Savings Bank, echoes Smyth’s comments. “[Lobstermen] come to us for [loans for] new boats, gear, repairs, new engines. We provide financial assistance to someone, somewhere in this region every day,” he said. Approximately 10% of the $2 billion bank’s business customers are lobstermen; $85 million of the bank’s loans are to fishermen. Within Washington County those figures are even greater – 30% of the bank’s business loans in that county are for lobster fishing purposes.

“[The importance of the lobster fishery] to the bank is hard to put into words. In Downeast Maine we would be in big trouble without it. Lobstermen are consumers for all these other businesses,” Alley said. “My dad’s a fisherman. My grandfather owns a wharf. Most of my close friends are fishermen. I was on the boat in the summers during college and while I was growing up. It’s the driver and foundation of everything down here.”

The financial impacts if the Downeast lobster fishery declined would not be concentrated solely on Stonington or neighboring small harbors. They would ripple much further than simply along the coast.

One would be hard pressed to find a fisherman’s family that has not made the trek to Ellsworth or Bangor several times a year, perhaps to purchase a new washing machine, school clothes, or other items not found on the island or peninsula. And toward the end of each good fishing season, a progression of pickup trucks head inland to buy a lobsterman’s second-most important piece of gear, a new truck.

According to Mac Beckwith, general manager of Varney’s Auto in Bangor, lobstermen are as constant as the moon and stars in their annual search for a new vehicle, although 2021 has been slightly different.

“This year has been unique. There’s not as much inventory available. It’s hard to get vehicles,” he explained, due to kinks in the global supply chain. Varney’s sells trucks to people in several different business sectors, including blueberry growers and processors, forestry, and the lobster fishery. “In different years different industries do well so we are lucky. We haven’t had a bad year recently,” he said.

Each dollar earned by a lobsterman passes through many hands, a process called the multiplier effect. Image T. Yoder, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries

Despite the diversification of the company’s customer base, Beckwith acknowledges that lobstermen are a core source of revenue.” If the lobster industry disappeared, we would feel it, absolutely, no question,” he said.

Stonington lobstermen and hundreds more in Downeast Maine are facing an uncertain future. Regulations designed to protect the North Atlantic right whale leave them in a slowly tightening noose in terms of where, how and when they may fish. Offshore wind energy projects are moving ahead rapidly. The Gulf of Maine’s warming deep water temperatures have largely benefited Maine lobstermen. That warming will continue in future years, leading many to wonder what impact it will have on the harvest.

“We don’t know what the future looks like. We don’t have enough information to even put bounds on that future,” said Carla Guenther, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. From her perspective, state and federal authorities’ actions indicate that the lobster fishery no longer commands the authority it once did. Lobstermen are not fully aware of that shift.

“Lobstermen think that if they say ‘No’ or if they don’t show up at a meeting then [these projects] can’t go forward. That’s not the case. The Governor and federal forces are pushing for wind projects and yet lobstermen think they still hold a lot of power [over the process],” she said.

There’s a sense of caution within the Stonington fishing community, according to Guenther. Older fishermen who have paid off their boats and homes are waiting to see what happens. Younger fishermen who may have invested in offshore boats and gear are weighing their options. “I know four hard-going offshore boats who plan to sell out this year,” Guenther said. “These are young guys in their 20s and 30s. There are dark clouds on the horizon.”

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