Winter can be cold and desolate in many places, but it seems that the outlook these days is especially bleak in Stonington and elsewhere along the Maine lobstering coast. The folks there aren’t concerned about the winter weather, though–they are afraid that their livelihoods, their businesses, and the long-time rhythms of their towns are in mortal peril.
I wrote a few months ago about the federal regulations designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the devastating impact that the regulations are expected to have on the Maine lobster industry. If anything, the forecast for the future of Maine lobstering has gotten worse since then. After a federal district court in Maine issued an order last fall preventing the National Marine Fisheries Service from imposing a seasonal ban on lobster fishing in Maine, the First Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stayed that order, ruling that the district court had over-stepped its role in determining that the agency lacked reliable evidence showing North Atlantic right whales were present in the restricted area. Last week the case was argued to the appellate court, and the federal government came down on the side of the right whales, arguing that the regulation should be upheld because the anticipated economic impact on the lobstering industry can’t trump the agency’s decision to protect the right whales.
Although the court case remains pending, the attitude along Maine’s coast is pessimistic. Last week the local Stonington newspaper, the Island Ad-Vantages, published an article headlined “Future looks dire for lobster fishery, coastal economy.” The article quotes Pat Kelliher, Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner, as saying that the threat of the closure of the lobster fishery is “increasingly significant.” He’s concerned not just about the outcome of the court case, but also by the fact that lobstermen can’t get the supplies that would allow them to fish in compliance with the federal regulations. And another Maine DMR official is concerned that the federal government will issue even more restrictive rules in the near future.
Maine state representative Genevieve McDonald is quoted in the Island Ad-Vantages article as noting that the closure of the lobstering trade would have a massive, adverse ripple effect on the local economies along the Maine coast. The article states: “’That has far-reaching implications not just to our fishermen, but to the land-based infrastructure that supports the fishing industry,’ McDonald said in a phone interview. Along the coast, that includes banks, truck dealers, boat builders, gear suppliers, seafood dealers, restaurants, hotels and town governments.” That’s a pretty broad, negative impact on local economies and jobs.
Winters can be cold up in Stonington. The possibility that the lobstering trade, and the way of life that Stonington locals have known for generations, may be slipping away forever due to forces beyond their control just makes the chill that much colder.