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Leaders in the lobster industry want the general public to know that the fishery is not only a critical piece of state and local economies, but also a meaningful culture for anyone who thinks about Maine.
“Lobster and Maine are synonymous,” said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
LaCroix was a panelist last week during a Maine State Chamber of Commerce webinar, “What is Maine without Lobster?” She and other panelists said the centuries-old fishery faces challenges that could lead to its end, according to some.
A year ago, said Curt Brown, “There was a very real possibility that, by 2024, our industry would effectively be regulated out of business.”
And fishermen wanted to get out of the business. Looking at sales outlets, he said, “there were more lobster boats and traps for sale than I had ever seen.”
Brown added, “We were very, very afraid as an industry, and rightly so because what was looming on the horizon — there were some very dark clouds.”
Brown is a lobsterman from Cape Elizabeth and a marine biologist at Ready Seafood in Saco.
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is a trade organization that promotes Maine lobster to markets worldwide and is funded by lobstermen, dealers and processors in Maine.
The third panelist was Patrice McCarron, policy director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, a trade association that works on industry issues through state, regional and federal management processes.
One of the most pressing issues the industry faces, the panelists said, is the impact of regulations intended to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale — but that could severely curtail lobstering.
A federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of the industry, finding that the federal government abused its rule-making discretion. The government’s regulations led to a "red-listing" from environmental groups, who currently advise against purchasing Maine lobster and are affecting the demand for Maine lobster.
Additional federal regulations will be implemented in 2028.
“It’s a really critical industry to the state,” said LaCroix. “It’s heritage industry that’s one of the oldest commercial fisheries in the country.”
There are about 5,000 commercial lobster fishermen, ranging from age 8 — the earliest that commercial licenses can be obtained — to over 100.
The diverse fleet of boats fish from nearshore waters to as far as 20 to 30 miles off the coast.
An important part of the fishery, said LaCroix, is an owner-operator rule that requires that the license holder is also the fisherman and has to be on the boat.
“So everyone on the water is an independent businessman,” said LaCroix.
That distinguishes the fishery from others because a corporation can’t buy up licenses and hire captains. That means that everyone on the water has a stake in the fishery.
Most boats have one or two crewmembers, and there’s another 4,000 jobs shoreside, in sectors that include distribution and processing.
In 2022, Maine lobstermen landed nearly 98 million pounds of lobster valued at $388.5 million — making it by far the state’s most significant seafood revenue generator. Overall, the industry contributes $1.4 billion to the state’s economy.
The industry also attracts tourists who want to eat Maine lobster and see the working waterfront.
“That’s an unmeasured benefit to the state,” LaCroix said.
McCarron warned that the federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, could shut down the fishery.
In 2021, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a 10-year plan that would require Maine’s lobster industry to implement a 90% reduction of the risk of fishing gear entanglement. The plan was due to be implemented in 2024.
But the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has said there has never been a known right whale mortality associated with Maine lobster gear, and there has not been a single known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear in nearly two decades.
Earlier this year, the trade association won a lawsuit against the service to invalidate the plan, saying it would eliminate the fishery.
The federal government recently announced it would invest $82 million in technology that may help save the whale — without resorting to cutbacks in Maine's lobster fishery. “We put together a legal team and sued the federal government in 2021,” said McCarron. “Truly a David and Goliath.”
A a result, a court decision last year deemed the fishery in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, and gave it a reprieve on new regulations until 2028.
The industry, she continued, wants to protect whales, but also “wants to be judged fairly and do a risk reduction plan that works and allows us to continue to operate.”
Brown recalled buying whale-safe fishing gear when he was a high school senior in 1998. Since then, the fishery has implemented additional measures — such as removing rope from the water column — designed to protect whales.
“All this effort and money wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t working,” Brown said. “The effectiveness of what we’re doing as an industry can be summed up by two numbers — zero and zero. Zero documented entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear since 2004. And zero documented mortalities in Maine lobster gear ever.”
With more regulations on the horizon and the red-listing to deal with, “The fishery is not out of the woods yet,” said McCarron.
Without a lobster fishery, LaCroix said, year-round island and coastal communities, especially in midcoast and Downeast Maine, would turn into summer communities.
“These people have been fishing for five, six, seven generations,” she said. “It’s unthinkable to image these communities being turned into seasonal communities that don’t support a year-round population. That’s what we’re looking at.”
Brown added, “Maine without lobster would be unrecognizable.”