Maine's lobster industry may not be around for much longer.
That may sound like hyperbole.
I've been meaning to write about the threats facing Maine's Lobster Industry for a while now, but I've procrastinated because I worried that I might fail to convey either the absurdity or the danger of the situation (or both). But this weekend I attended a potluck fundraiser at a local library, where fishing families came together to raise money to fund their fight for survival. And as I watched the sons and daughters selling homemade candles and the wives selling mats woven from old rope, I found it infuriating that it's come to this. So I'm going to do my best to describe the situation:
My father lobstered from the mid 1970's until his untimely death in 2017. I have incredibly fond memories of helping him on his boat, eating lobster (lobster rolls, lobster stew and lobster scrambled eggs for everyday meals; lobster stuffed potatoes and lobster newburg for special occasions). I'll always have a soft spot for the lobster fishery, even if it does cast an outsized shadow on what I believe is the REAL star of Maine's seafood show: dayboat scallops. But my fondness for the fishery, a desire to protect my state's economy and an allegiance to my lobstermen friends is NOT why I'm angry about the threats facing Maine's lobster industry right now. I'm angry because this situation is absurd.
Earlier this summer the Monterey Bay Aquarium changed its categorization of Maine Lobster from "recommended" to "avoid." Yesterday, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended its certification of Maine's Lobster fishery. Both these decisions were taken because rope used in the lobster fishery is capable of entangling the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Note the phrasing there, because it's important: the ropes are capable of entangling right whales.
Beginning in the mid 1990's, lobstermen underwent a series of significant and very expensive changes to prevent interaction with whales. These measures included replacing floating rope with sinking rope, installing weak-links on lines so if a whale were entangled it would be able to break free, implementing a large seasonal no-fishing zone and requiring all gear to be marked so the source of any potential entanglements could be identified.
The success of these measures is evidenced by the fact that there have been no documented cases of a right whale being entangled in Maine lobster gear in almost 20 years. It's also worth noting that until recently the right whale population appeared to be rebounding.
But for unknown, or at least unprovable reasons, the right whale population has declined in recent years, prompting environmental NGO's to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to adequately protect it. As a result of that lawsuit, NMFS has enacted a plan that will further reduce the lobster industry's already minimal potential risk to right whales by a staggering 98 percent over the next ten years.
Maine's lobster industry has already undertaken extraordinary measures to keep from endangering whales. But unless this latest ruling is overturned, the industry will have to undergo an additional 98% reduction beyond what they've already done. The measures required to achieve that monumental risk reduction (read: gear reduction) would kill the industry. Period. Bye bye Maine lobster....
Before I go on, I should point out that I'm a hybrid-driving, recycling fanatic environmentalist. I'm not suggesting we should prioritize the survival of a fishery over the survival of a species. But that's the thing: the measures being proposed will not, in fact, save the right whale, because the lobster industry is not actually responsible for its decline.
The latest data suggest the decline in the NARW (North Atlantic Right Whale) population is likely due to a number of factors, with climate change playing a major role. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world's oceans, and these warming waters are rendering it less attractive to right whales. Notably, the NARW's favorite prey species, Calanus finmarchicus is declining and shifting out of the Gulf of Maine, and the whales have followed, so Maine lobster gear is now even less of a threat to right whales.
The Marine Stewardship Council itself has admitted "there is no recent evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales". But because lobster gear is capable of entangling right whales, and because the actual cause of the decline is unknown, the lobster industry is being forced to account for unknown threats in addition to the minimal threats it actually poses. In other words, the lobster industry is being penalized for having failed to single-handedly bring about the recovery of an endangered species. Wait, what??
Maine's lobster fishery is rightly regarded as a poster child for sustainability. And I'm not just talking about in the U.S.: I was invited to the Isle of Man a few years back to give a talk on Maine's lobster fishery, because it's a picture-perfect example of just about everything fisheries managers strive to achieve.
For decades, we've employed a minimum size catch that allows lobsters to breed before being harvested and a maximum size catch that allows large, reproductive powerhouses to keep doing their thing.
We also notch the tail of egg-bearing females to further encourage reproductive success.
And in the late 1990's, when effort reductions were needed in the fishery, an innovative system of co-management was employed in which Maine state waters were divided into seven zones where local fishermen helped shape management measures tailored to work best in their area.
It's impossible to assign responsibility for the NARW's recent decline with any degree of certainty. Climate change, fishing gear entanglement (notably Canadian snow crab gear), ship strikes and who knows what else may all be contributing factors. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. But the solution to uncertainty is not fanaticism.
Whatever the cause, some scientists believe the right whale population has now dipped so low extinction is inevitable no matter what we do. That's a terrible shame. But it's absurd to channel our frustration with this uncertain, sad situation into condemnation of a fishery that's doing its damndest to ensure it doesn't do anything to speed that extinction.
It's worth repeating that Maine's lobster industry is not under threat because the measures they've put in place over the past two decades to protect right whales haven't worked: they're facing their own potential extinction because the right whale has failed to recover despite the success of those measures.
I and many others here in Maine are pretty frustrated with this situation. I'm pretty frustrated with a lot of the absurd things going on right now in this country. We should be able to disagree without villainizing each other. We should be able to come at a tricky situation from different angles but take the best of each others' ideas to generate a better solution. The success of one entity shouldn't be predicated on the demise of another.
If this ruling isn't overturned, there's going to be a giant sucking sound (even Ross Perot would shudder) as fishing families and countless others who rely on the lobster fishery are forced to leave the communities they've called home for generations. Downeast Maine is one of the most fisheries-dependent areas in the country: it's often literally the only game in town. Livelihoods are at stake. Communities are at stake. Honestly, so much is at stake.
I'll close by saying this: please consider donating to the Maine Lobstermen's legal defense fund. Maine lobstermen don't have the deep pockets necessary to defend themselves against this insanity.
Also, please EAT MAINE LOBSTER. You may not have the chance to do so for much longer.
Photo credit: Steve DeNeef as part of the Merroir project.