Steaming Ahead | November 2023

I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t take it anymore! Whale rules, offshore wind farms, trackers, gauge increases — just leave us alone!”

It’s exhausting to think about and you want to tune it all out. But you can’t. Lobster fishing is your livelihood and your passion. It is the promise of a future for you, your children and your community.

For most of you, being a lobsterman defines you. It is who you are, it is what you do. You would not choose another life even if you could. There are so many amazing things about being a lobsterman — you get to work on the ocean, be your own boss, make a proud living, and be part of Maine’s fishing heritage. It is a privilege to be a lobsterman and it gives you a way of life that most people will never know.

With that privilege, however, comes responsibility because lobsters are a public resource. Lobster stocks are managed by the government for the benefit of all citizens. To do this, the government passed many laws and regulations to guide how the fishery can operate. These laws touch on everything you do — who has access to the ocean and its resources, how you fish, where you fish, and how you interact with other ocean species.

A V-notched female lobster. DMR photo.

Maine lobstermen have always understood their responsibility. For generations, lobstermen have practiced conservation measures such as fishing with traps, size limits and V-notching so that there will always be something “in the bank” for the next generation.

When you’ve been part of creating one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, being told that you need to radically change how you fish because you are allegedly killing whales or need to co-exist with offshore wind farms makes no sense at all. It just feels wrong.

But lobstermen are not in charge of managing lobster stocks or how the ocean is used, the federal government is. An alphabet soup of government agencies and national laws are driving the onslaught of change, and neither are going away. The government must get input from stakeholders before they implement regulations — and the lobster industry’s voice is just one of many. The government will move forward with or without us, so we must engage in the process.

That is why the MLA exists. The MLA’s job is to watchdog the process so the government doesn’t overstep its authority and over-regulate. The MLA makes sure the concerns of its members are heard loudly and clearly, over and over again. For each action that government proposes, the MLA brings lobstermen’s perspectives to the discussion. In some cases, MLA will outright oppose a management action; in other cases, MLA will advocate that resource managers choose options that will cause the least harm to the lobster industry.

Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. But the MLA always educates itself and its members on the issues. Sometimes our members agree, but often times they do not. The MLA listens carefully and brings all that feedback to the management process.

The MLA left no stone unturned when it came to fighting how the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) wanted to protect right whales. We determined that NMFS was not using the scientific data properly, was not following federal laws properly, and was blatantly over-regulating the lobster industry. The government’s missteps on this issue were so egregious and the harm it would cause lobstermen so severe that the MLA sued the federal government – and won. Talk about David versus Goliath!

The MLA’s huge win in the Washington D.C. Appeals Court in June coupled with Congress’s six-year delay in any new whale rules gives us hope that saving the right whale population does not need to be the end of the lobster fishery. Our wins are historic but nevertheless, this battle is far from over.

The MLA has also been relentless in its opposition to offshore wind. The MLA locked onto this issue when Governor Mills announced in late 2020 the state would develop an offshore wind energy research array. Since that day, the MLA has been a steady presence at the meetings with the state, with the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM), and with the Legislature, never wavering in our opposition to industrialized offshore wind projects. We joined forces with others in Maine’s fishing industry to keep offshore wind developments out of Lobster Management Area 1 and were successful in gaining the support of the Governor and the Maine Delegation. In late October, BOEM announced that the majority of LMA 1 will not be considered for offshore wind leasing. The MLA will continue working to get the last three areas in LMA 1 still under consideration by BOEM removed.

The MLA also works hard on issues that ultimately don’t go our way. Maine’s federal permit holders must install trackers on their vessels by December 15. The MLA opposed ASMFC’s plan to require trackers, approved in March 2022. Many members agreed that we need better data to fight whales and offshore wind, but that trackers are not the way to do it. The MLA pushed ASMFC to fully implement the harvester reporting program instead. “We remain very skeptical that an electronic vessel monitoring program for the LMA 1 lobster fishery will benefit the fleet, and in fact, we worry that this program may instead cause harm,” the MLA wrote in its comments.

The ASMFC voted last month to increase the LMA 1 lobster gauge minimum and maximum sizes in January 2025. The MLA opposed this plan as well, which the Commission adopted in May. Some MLA members were worried that the stock might be in decline, while others were skeptical of a stock decline because they saw record numbers of small lobsters. Everyone was concerned, however, about how an increase in the U.S. gauge could impact the boat price for lobster. Downeast members were particularly upset that they would be throwing back undersize lobsters that could be legally caught by Canada and then sold back to the U.S. The MLA opposed the gauge increase and urged ASMFC to take time to conduct a study of the market impacts of changing the LMA 1 gauge and collect more lobster survey data in deeper waters.

As more and more new regulations appear on the horizon and your frustration mounts, remember that the MLA did not create these issues. Lobster is a national resource, national laws govern how it is harvested, and federal agencies implement those laws. We can’t make the effects of climate change on right whale behavior disappear. We can’t make the federal government’s push for offshore wind energy go away. And we’re not always going to prevail in our efforts. But we can and will continue to work hard to build powerful scientific and legal teams to keep up on all these complex issues and use our well-respected, credible voice to make sure our members’ opinions are heard, no matter how many meetings that takes. That is exactly what MLA has done on all of the issues that are coming to bear on us right now.

I’ve heard this phrase throughout my years with the MLA and I know absolutely that it is true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As always, stay safe on the water.

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