Steaming Ahead – December 2022

At the end of a year filled with political drama, disappointing lobster prices, and the looming shadow of punitive whale regulations that could eradicate the Maine lobster fishery, we asked several MLA board members for their thoughts about 2022 and the year ahead.

What a year it’s been.

Sonny Beal fishes from Beals Island.

As I write this, I can tell you that I’m down. Down on poundage, down on motivation and obviously down financially. This year has been challenging to say the least. Here in Zone A the lobsters haven’t been as plentiful as in the last few years. Even that fall run offshore that I always count on hasn’t been there. Fortunately, at 46 years old I’ve seen the lean years and know we will somehow make it through, but man, it’s hard to find the motivation to fire up my 430 Cummins and head to haul in my 40 Young Brothers knowing I’m not going to make shit. So probably like a lot of you, Christmas will have a few less presents, we won’t be making our family trip to Florida and my youngest son, who gets his driver’s license next summer, will probably end up paying for an ‘89 Ford Ranger instead of the Superduty he desires.

To make things worse everyone I talk to wants to talk about the low price of lobsters and the high price of everything else and honestly, I’m getting tired of it. Between the season we’ve had and the whale rules we’re facing I’ve had enough. However, burying my head in the sand and sleeping all winter is not an option. It’s not an option for any of us. As lobstermen and women and as Mainers we know we can and will fight to the very end. That means driving to that meeting and hearing the facts and giving your opinion. That means talking to the non-fisherman about the low price of lobsters and the high price of everything else. And it means donating some of that hard-earned money to the Legal Defense Fund to fight the federal government and environmentalists that are trying to shut us down.

Now I know you’ll say, “The banks have donated plenty.” We are very fortunate that they did. But this money is not all “in hand.” Some of it is spread out over several years so it’s not like we have a million dollars already in the bank. We need money and we need lots of it. This is going to be a long, expensive fight and we need your help.

Since I’m already off the subject of what I was asked to write about let’s talk about the definition of an environmentalist. Webster says it is “one concerned about environmental quality, especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution.” Kinda sounds like a fisherman, doesn’t it?

A farmer is “someone who cultivates land or crops or raises animals such as livestock or fish.” I’ve said for years that we are farmers of the ocean, raising lobsters with our traps full of bait. Now I say we are environmentalists as well. No one cares more about the ocean than us and it’s proven in the way we take care of our lobster stocks. So when that non-fisherman speaks to you make sure to inform him of what we do and how we do it. Make sure to tell him what he hears and the pictures he sees are not the truth. We need to do it ourselves. The day we rely on someone else to speak our message is the first day of our demise.

As the winter season starts I will be doing my normal, trying to get some gear up but leaving enough down to haul in one day. I am very leery of the 1700-lb. links in my endlines breaking during the weeks I won’t be able to tend my traps due to weather. I’m leery of what the scallop price will be when I’m shelling meats in the stern of my nephew’s boat. I know I will be pinching pennies all winter. Minus of course the high school basketball tourney week in Bangor when I will pretend that somewhere in this crazy world something still stays normal.

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This year’s lobster season has been a tough one.

Herman Coombs fishes from Orr’s Island.

Between high prices for bait and fuel, and the low prices for lobsters, there isn’t much profit to go around. I’ve changed the way I haul this year to try and save a little bit of money. I used to haul on three to four nights but I’m hauling on five to six nights. We have had low lobster prices before, but the cost of bait and fuel seems to be higher than I can ever remember.
The other hard part is trying to predict how I’m going to fish in the future because there is so much uncertainty.

Whale regulations have been on everyone’s mind. Not knowing the outcome or what to expect, it’s hard to plan for your business. I’ve already seen people taking up earlier this year than they have in past years. I’m not buying as much as I usually do this time of year either.

On top of that, it’s not just stuff related to lobster that is getting expensive. Groceries, home projects, and heating the house is expensive, too. It feels like stuff is just piling on. Our furnace just broke and who knows when we will be able to get the parts we need or, if we have to order a new one, how long that will take. (Don’t worry, we have other heat sources.)

I have two kids that are doing well in school, but I worry about their futures, too. Family projects and trips are taking a back burner while we wait and see what’s next. I’m sure other fishing families are feeling the same.

My daughter, Jocelyne, just finished her student lobster apprenticeship and I am very proud of her. But we have told her that she needs something else to fall back on for income in the winter months, especially because of the uncertainty of the lobster fishery. It makes me sad to think that kids like her might not be able to have the same experience that we have all been able to have in this fishery.
Riley, my son, isn’t always excited about going lobstering with his sister and getting his hours, but he loves to go pogey fishing with me. Even this is pretty uncertain for him in the future.

I appreciate that my kids have the opportunity to learn responsibility, hard work, and perseverance on the water. This is special to fishing families. I like the life that I have because of lobstering, and I am not ready to give it up.

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The 2022 Maine lobster season is not one that fishermen will look back on as memorable, like 2021.

Jamien Hallowell fishes from New Harbor.

Maine lobstermen never imagined that after a banner year like last year, with record-high boat prices and catch, the following season would be so much more challenging and much less profitable.

With lobster prices less than half of what fishermen were paid last year and with record-high expenses for bait, fuel, traps, and boat maintenance, profit margins have been slim for everyone whether they’re a skiff fisherman or in a 50-foot boat. As the season comes to an end we all are feeling the hit of low lobster prices. Add to that the uncertainty of the ongoing MLA court case and the poor lobster markets, and fishermen are right to wonder and worry about what next year will bring.

I would hope there could be better communication between the lobster dealers and fishermen in the future to avoid such low prices, maybe lobstermen even working with dealers so the market doesn’t flood. Lobstermen are flexible in how they operate and they need to know from the buyers what’s happening. With the higher cost of living in 2022 and the lobster price being what it was 20 to 30 years ago, this year lobstering didn’t add up to a profitable business.

I am pleased to see the support and generosity of so many people, businesses, and banks to the MLA throughout the year. The MLA has worked endlessly fundraising and fighting the good fight. People have really opened their eyes to the challenges the fishery faces now and in the future. Fingers crossed for a better, more optimistic 2023 season.

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