For lobstering families in Maine, 2022 was not a good year. Prices for lobsters were low, a sharp drop from the previous year. The cost of fuel and bait skyrocketed in the spring and never came down. Add to that the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the fishery due to a looming federal mandate to reduce the risk posed by lobster gear to right whales by a staggering 90% the next rulemaking and it’s easy to see why anyone associated with lobstering would feel a measure of despair.
A group of Downeast women whose husbands or partners are lobstermen decided that they would not give in to despair. The small group of approximately 24 women, called Downeast Housewives for the Fishing Industry, started out when a few women in the Beals/Jonesport area began getting together to have coffee and share the ups and downs of their lives. “We are friends and we kind of lean on each other,” said Amanda Smith, whose husband Richard fishes from Beals Island.
When the news came that the Monterey Bay Aquarium had categorized lobster as a species to avoid on its Seafood Watch list, the women were alarmed. A drop in demand for Maine lobster combined with a poor season could have devastating effects on their communities in the next year. “We said ‘What are we going to do?’ And decided that the best thing to do was to raise money for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA),” Smith said.
They did so by holding a rally in Jonesport in September and another in Augusta in October. They set up a Facebook page to provide information on how the fishery operates and the many conservation practices of lobstermen. They created T-shirts and sweatshirts to sell in order to send more money to the MLA. And all the while they and their families were worrying about the future.
“I grew up in here (Jonesport/Beals Island). My father and my grandfather were both lobstermen,” said Whitney Beal. “We’ve all had bad years, but this is different. It’s been an absolutely horrific year for everyone and it’s really important to be able to talk about it with each other.”
Whitney and her husband Abraham are expecting their second child in February. According to their records, Abraham’s profit is down by half this year, a product of higher expenses and lower price. “Usually, we can save enough money to get through the winter. January to April you just dread. But this year doesn’t look good. The only thing keeping us going is the fact that everyone is going through the same thing,” she said.
Kirsten Alley has a similar outlook. “We don’t know what’s happening in the future. We’ve just had a rock bottom year so what’s next year going to bring?”
Everyone in her extended family is connected to the lobster fishery, including her husband Logan and her father Patrick. Uncertainty about the future is having its effect on them as well as many other lobstermen in Downeast Maine.
“We’ve had hours of discussion about what we are going to do. Do we sell the boat? There’s three years left on it. Will it be worth anything in three years or should we sell it now?” she said. Then there are all the other businesses that depend on lobstermen’s success, the restaurants, garages, marine equipment stores. She worries about what will happen to them if the fishery contracts. “Everyone around here has felt it [fear] this year. If the industry doesn’t survive, these other businesses won’t either.”
Lobstermen are resourceful; it’s part of a successful fisherman’s nature. Thus, some are thinking about other ways to make a living, as are their sternmen. “There’s a lot of fear right now,” Smith said. “Some guys are going to scallop in Massachusetts. Some are thinking of Alaska. My husband builds traps in the winter. All his orders have been cancelled.”
“My husband said this summer that he always thought he’d lobster for the rest of his life. But our son [20-months old] probably won’t fish. He never would have expected that,” said Alley. “We are emotionally and mentally exhausted. The unknown and uncertainty is really getting us the most.”
Some are simply putting their heads down and waiting. “They are not ready to accept that the worst can happen,” said Beal. “People are just continuing to work. But now there are so many boats for sale on Facebook Marketplace.”
Abraham Beal named his boat Whit’s End, a play on his wife’s first name. But today Whitney Beal sees it another way. “Wit’s end, yes, that’s where we are right now.”