The largest donation yet to Save Maine Lobstermen, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s (MLA) fundraising campaign, has given the Association a crucial boost in its fight to save the lobster fishery from being strangled by new federal regulations. John and Brendan Ready, founders of Ready Seafood, recently donated $200,000 to the campaign, following up their $50,000 contribution in 2021. “We understand fully what’s coming next for the lobster fishery. It makes sense for everyone to give money now to the MLA’s legal campaign,” Brendan Ready said.
To ensure that the next generation of lobstermen have the same opportunities to go lobstering and also to preserve an integral part of Maine’s culture, the MLA is raising funds for an urgent legal battle on behalf of the lobster industry to reveal the truth about Maine lobstermen’s twenty year effort of right whale conservation and to defend the industry from extinction. The current narrative is pitting Maine lobstermen against this endangered species yet the science and data being used against lobstermen isn’t accurate. The only ammunition in the fight is money to provide the MLA the financial means for a legal assault against NMFS and to prevent the fishery from being closed down.
John and Brendan know what is at stake. Both men began baiting and banding lobsters with their lobsterman uncle out of Cape Elizabeth when they were seven and eight years old, and soon grew into their own boats and traps to begin fishing for themselves. “We loved it,” John said. “We were independent and invited to be part of a bigger group.”
After years of lobstering inshore and offshore, the two men eventually established a lobster buying and processing business now known as Ready Seafood. Founding the company was one way to answer questions that troubled them both: where do the lobsters go once they hit the dock? How can lobstermen get more financial value from the labor they put into landing the lobsters?
“We wanted to add value to that lobster hauled with such hard work and to let the world know who caught it and where,” Brendan explained. Their mission led them to grow the company from simply buying and selling live lobster to a diversified business model split between live lobster and processing. In 2019 the company expanded into the largest state-of-the-art processing facility in Maine and now produces an array of value-added lobster products.
“At the end of the day it’s all about adding value and making sure we are giving back to the industry,” Brendan said. “But honestly, one of our most precious things still is our lobster license numbers.”
That desire to add something to a fishery that has given them so much has prompted a remarkable level of both financial and research support from John and Brendan. Curt Brown, himself a lobsterman and marine biologist, joined the company in 2014 after a stint at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. He urged the brothers to think about the sustainability of the fishery, particularly about the need for increased research on Gulf of Maine lobster populations.
“We got involved in a study of lobster settlement at depth, led by Rick Wahle [director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine]. It was funded for two years by Maine Sea Grant,” Brown explained. When the funding ran out, Ready Seafood stepped in to support the work, marking the first time a private company funded public lobster research. The company’s support helped leverage additional money from Red Lobster, Cranberry Isles Lobstermen’s Co-op, Thurston’s Lobster Pound, in addition to harvester support from Jordan Drouin of Cutler. “The study’s now in its seventh year. With contributions from all levels of the supply chain, this project is providing data and information to make decisions that help better understand and hopefully manage the fishery,” Brown said. “We’ve contributed $500,000 since 2016,” Brendan added. “It is simply the right thing to do for the industry.”
Brendan remembers hearing MLA president Kristan Porter speak at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in 2018, when federal agencies were first contemplating new regulations to protect right whales. “Kristan outlined what was coming and I thought, ‘Man, that sucks but that is a long way off.’ And now it is here.”
Lobstermen were outraged when in 2021 NMFS closed a large offshore area to lobster fishing from October to January. Recent statements from NMFS, however, hint at additional risk reduction measures later this year, reductions that could include limiting the number of traps and additional closures.
Many feel that the goal of the whale plan is to simply remove all rope from the water. The 10-year whale plan set the year 2025 for lobstermen to endure the next round of cuts, but recent statements from NMFS indicate that additional risk reduction measures will be implemented on an accelerated schedule. As soon as next year, lobstermen may expect massive trap reductions and extensive closed areas. In less than eight years, lobstermen may be limited to using so-called “ropeless” gear only.
“We know what we are up against, and we know what’s coming next,” Brendan said. “We donated $50,000 last year to this fight and realized it’s not enough. I have two kids, John has three, Curt has two. What will be there for them?”
“The lobstermen before us took great care of the fishery and the ocean when we came in. Our job is to hand it on to the next generation even better than when we got it,” John added.
Both men noted that Maine lobstermen have been quick to donate to the MLA’s Save Maine Lobstermen campaign since it began last November but are disappointed in the level of support outside the harvesting community. They pointed out that many other Maine businesses depend on the vitality of the fishery, from other large dealers and processors, boat builders and marine electronic suppliers to grocery stores and restaurants.
The economic health of many of Maine’s coastal towns and cities depends on the continued success of lobstermen, whose profits keep an intricate web of businesses, large and small, afloat.
“What we have here in Maine is unique. And it is now at risk. Everyone’s response should be the same to this threat. As an industry we are on the right side of this issue and we need our story to be heard. Everyone who benefits from the fishery should join this fight,” said Brown.
“The lobster industry has been good to a lot of people. Lobstermen have been doing the right thing for generation after generation,” said Brendan. “It’s time we all stepped up and put something back into the industry. If you understand the facts about what’s going to happen, then it’s time to give back.”