BERNARD, June 11, 2020 – I have never met a truly contented lobster fisherman. “There is always something,” as the late philosopher Gilda Radner once said. There is never enough lobster, or, as in 2012, there was too much lobster. There is the persistent rising cost – from diesel fuel, to insurance, to crew wages, to lost gear, to bait. There is bad weather, always bad weather, and, above all, there are harrowing moments at sea. And that’s all during the good times.
Now, two major shocks to the industry in two years are truly staggering. In 2019 fishermen took an unexpected punch to the gut when the Chinese closed their massive market to Maine lobsters by imposing counter tariffs which can be up to 40 percent. Fishermen streamlined their supply chain and made it easier to reach the domestic market and survived. Now, the pandemic is coming to strike another blow.
So forgive the disquiet at the two hamlets sharing the same harbor here – Bernard and Bass Harbor, and despite lobstermen being a foreboding lot to start with, there is a sense of dread that the worst is yet to come.
“There will be lobstermen going out of business,” said Jim Dow, whose family has been fishing in these parts for five generations. Dow thinks the summer will be similar to 2008 during the Great Recession. But even then, restaurants were still open.
Bass Harbor/Bernard is a lobster town through and through – the only one on MDI. Bass Harbor ranks consistently in the top 10 in Maine for total lobster catch annually, along with Stonington, Jonesport, Beals Island, Vinalhaven and Portland.
Maine sells 75 to 80 percent of all lobsters consumed in the United States which is now the only market left after the tariff debacle. The industry survived that shock partly because prices stayed above $5 a pound for fishermen while overall catch plummeted.
Today, Lobsters were selling at $4.10 a pound from the boat at Beal’s Lobster Pond in Southwest Harbor. There is no telling where prices are headed but very few are betting they will increase while the country is still in partial lockdown and the restaurant industry reeling. A major problem is that lobsters do not have a big retail demand as most people do not like to cook it at home. That’s a challenge the Maine Lobster Marketing collaborative is trying to solve with a campaign to get consumers to buy lobsters directly.
Another problem is the short season for lobsters – essentially July, August and September. Consumers like lobsters fresh and the summer is when the catch is abundant as lobsters come closer to shore. Many fishermen are seasonal and just preparing to launch their boats. As they do so, they will add to the problem, increasing inventory when demand is low.
“This is a particularly precarious time,” said Genevieve McDonald, a lobster fisherwoman out of Stonington who is also a state representative and a member of the Joint Committee for Marine Resources. She noted that it has been a slow start to the season. “There is not a mad rush to set out” on the part of many fishermen.
At the recent photo op in early June in Bangor, Donald Trump held a “fishermen’s roundtable” and did his best to act empathic. He gathered a friendly audience, led by former Gov. Paul LePage. Trump had to be educated on many commercial fishing issues. Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, prepared a letter to Trump to complain that Maine did not get its fair share of federal assistance.
“The paycheck protection program, disaster loans and pandemic unemployment have helped keep some businesses afloat, and we are grateful for the fishing industry disaster relief spearheaded by Senator Collins. However, Maine received only $20 million, a fraction of the billions of dollars in economic activity we stand to lose during this crisis. We urge the administration to consider additional aid to save our nation’s commercial fisheries.”
But in front of Trump, Porter said no such thing. Instead he took Trump’s bait to take a swipe at Barack Obama, who is now almost four years out of office. That the Svengali-in-Chief, who was singularly responsible for U. S. lobsterman losing both the Chinese and European markets overnight, was able to manipulate hard working Mainers into political theater is Shakespearean in its tragic extreme.
When told that China imposed a 40 percent tariff and the E.U. had a 20 percent tax, Trump said, “Well, that one is easy.” He said he would hit them with another tariff to get them to cancel their lobster tariffs, totally deflecting any responsibility for the economic mayhem. Everyone is still waiting for that easy decision to manifest.
At one point Trump turned to LePage to ask him how to resolve the right whale issue, and LePage replied that NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) had to be restrained. Trump did not know what NOAA was but turned to an aide and said, “Okay. Let’s get that done.”
For more, read this editorial from the Bangor Daily News about Trump’s visit ..
The pandemic will wreak havoc this summer but this too shall pass. A more secular – and perhaps fatal – future awaits lobstermen in the form of the battle to save right whales. Environmental groups have filed two lawsuits asserting that the whales get entangled in lobster traps which cause injury and even death. In April they won a major victory when a federal judge – appointed by Barack Obama (note reference above) – ruled that the U.S. Agency charged with implementing rules to protect the whales gave the lobster industry a free pass.
North Atlantic right whales have been under the protection of the Endangered Species Act since 1970. Today researchers estimate there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales with fewer than 100 breeding females left. “Only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate,” according to NOAA. “This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017, accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.”
A study released on May 28 offered a new twist – that the U.S. lobster industry could place fewer traps in the water and still gain just as much profit.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed Marine Policy Journal. Lead researcher Hannah Myers, a graduate student at the University of Alaska’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, examined landings and other data from lobster-fishing territory that crosses the international Hague Line between Nova Scotia and Maine.
“We found that Canadian fishers in the Gulf of Maine caught about the same amount of lobster using seven and a half times less effort than Maine fishers on the U.S. side,” she said. The researchers found that while the Canadians spent fewer days at sea and fished fewer traps, the traps they pulled had almost four times as many lobsters in them.”
“As far as why catch might actually be higher with a closure, there’s a lot of biological reasons for that and other variables that confound it, but in some cases it might be analogous to farmers allowing a field to lie fallow in order to improve productivity later on,” Myers said.
One skeptic is Stonington’s McDonald. “Canadian lobster fishing and Maine lobstering fishing are very different. You can’t compare them side by side,” she said.
“The fleets are different. Canada has a shorter season. Maine has both an inshore fleet and offshore fleet,” McDonald said. She, like other commercial lobstermen, are focused on the Sept. 1 deadline to implement new regulations to track ropes which ensnare whales to bolster their argument that most of the lines entangling whales are not that of Maine fishermen.
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald became the first woman commercial fisherman elected to the Maine state legislature in 2018
According to the National Marine Fishery Service, about 75 percent of all right whale entanglements are caused by rope that cannot be traced to any particular fishery or region. By requiring all Maine lobstermen mark their rope with purple marks, Maine will obtain more robust data to show the extent to which Maine lobster gear is — or is not — involved in right whale entanglements.
Maine hopes to distinguish itself from the Massachusetts, New Hampshire and offshore sectors of the lobster fishery, which in some areas have a much higher overlap with right whales. Some fishermen who fish only “inshore” complain that whales don’t come into shallow water and question why they must adhere to the new rules.
Maine fishermen like to point out that most of the whale deaths since 2017 have occurred in Canada. That year was particularly bad for North Atlantic right whales. There were 17 caused by entanglement or ship strike. Twelve of those deaths occurred in Canadian waters. Maine fishermen claim there is no evidence to attribute any right whale death to fishing gear entanglement in the Gulf of Maine.
Now enter Climate change from Stage Right.
Just because something happened last year doesn’t mean it will repeat itself this year, owing to the warming oceans. Moreover, entanglement may be a leading cause of the decline in reproduction. The Museum of Science in Boston estimated that 85 percent of the right whales have been entangled at least once.
The whales could be ranging more widely, following the ebb and flow of their traditional food sources, or looking for new ones. Their staple is a tiny crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus, whose abundance changes with the currents and the climate.
Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, a marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says migration appears to be changing. “The reason whales died last year is because they were utilizing relatively new habitats, where there’s no protective legislation in place,” she says. “They’re facing waters that aren’t protected by vessel speed reductions, fishing gear regulations, seasonal fishery closures.”
Stonington’s State Rep. McDonald seems to share this view.
“Maine is not the end of the earth. As other species shift north, other species are going to shift into Maine from the Mid-Atlantic,” she said shortly after her election.
There is a prodigious paradox in all this. Lobster fishing has been one of the most environmentally sound and sustainable sea-going enterprises in history. It is the only fishery which is still healthy after more than 100 years. It practices fishery management with precision and discipline so that lobsters are not depleted. As early as 1874, the industry agreed on a size limit which is still followed today. Maine lobstermen are by definition conservationists who have successfully passed down their craft for multiple generations like Jim Dow.
But the future is fuzzy, with a judge in Washington, D.C. playing an outsized role, well-sourced environmental groups taking no prisoners, Susan Collins and Donald Trump potentially ousted and a new administration which will give NOAA ample powers to enforce the Endangered Species Act. LePage was right about one thing: Lobstermen are practical, but also fiercely independent. It would be the ultimate irony for this conservation-minded group to suffer a significant defeat and be forced to remake the landmark seascape of Maine Harbors. Could it be that they are playing the wrong hand? As self-satisfying as it may be to bash liberals, could they be assisting in their own demise?
“There are 900,000 vertical lines for lobster traps in the Northeast,” said Hannah Myers. “It’s tragedy of the commons,” invoking the essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd on how people behave to their self interest contrary to the “common good.”