On February 14 the state announced that the value of lobster in Maine in 2021 reached an all-time high totaling nearly $725 million. This figure is remarkable and puts the lobster fishery in position to be the most valuable fishery in the United States. To put this into perspective further, there were nine countries with GDPs that were less than the earnings generated by Maine’s lobster landings in 2021.
We see this news as very welcome, especially amid so many news headlines declaring threats to the survival of the lobster industry. Yet this announcement also has us asking questions about how it should be interpreted. At face value, $725 million seems like a lot of money, but we suspect the story is more nuanced and warrants critical reflection. Prices for everything are up; reliable crew are difficult to find and keep; and bait has become more and more challenging to source. At the same time, the lobster industry is facing major regulatory hurdles and increasing competition for ocean space. This context does not negate last year’s achievement, but it gives us pause and stops us short of assuming, as some might, that a “record” season means that all is sunshine and roses for everyone in the lobster fishery.
This is a moment when the lack of a clearly defined set of socioeconomic metrics in the Maine lobster fishery is self-evident. By not having them, we essentially default to using total annual landings and value as our predominant yardstick for measuring the status of the fishery. If landings and value go up, things are good. If they go down, things are bad. This logic points us to the conclusion that things are really, really, really good in the lobster fishery. Yet this is not entirely consistent with what we have been hearing from fishermen up and down the coast of Maine.
For the past year, our research team has been leading a project to develop socioeconomic indicators for the lobster fishery — an idea that originated from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. To inform this research, we began by conducting a series of interviews with fishermen (and other well-informed people associated with the industry) in the fall of 2021. We started with interviews because we wanted to hear from you — the lobster industry — and not presuppose that we knew what metrics to use. These interviews have helped us identify an initial set of metrics to dig into. These metrics include but are not limited to, the extent to which fishermen re-invest in their businesses, changing coastal development pressure, and the industry’s outlook on the future of the fishery. We are now using the insight provided by interviews to identify existing data sets that can be used to describe these important indicators.
The next step of this project is to share preliminary findings back to the lobster industry so that you can help us interpret and ground-truth the results. Establishing new ways to understand the health of the industry — beyond a single value — we believe will better equip the lobster industry, coastal communities, and managers to address ongoing and future challenges facing the sector.
Interested in learning more, providing feedback, or contributing to this project? This project is a collaborative effort between the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, Maine Department of Marine Resources, and the University of Maine. A major goal of this project is to directly incorporate industry perspectives, so we would like to invite any interested industry members to directly express comments, questions, or concerns to the project team by emailing Theresa Burnham, who is a researcher at the University of Maine and a co-leader of the project, at firstname.lastname@example.org.