The Last Days Of Lobstering?

The people of Stonington are concerned about the future of their community. They aren’t worried about an approaching nor’easter or the remnants of a tropical storm; they’ve survived many of those. Instead, they are worried about federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that they are afraid might sink the Maine lobster industry–the industry that supports many of the businesses and households in Stonington, which is the largest working lobster fishing community in Maine.

On August 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) issued final regulations that will close a part of the coastal waters off Maine to lobster fishing from October to January, which is traditionally a lucrative time for those in the lobster trade. And then, by May, lobster fishermen will have to configure their lines and traps to meet other new regulations that are designed to limit the number of lines connecting buoys on the water’s surface to lobster traps on the ocean floor and to weaken the strength of the rope lines, so that any right whale that becomes entangled can break free.

That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.

And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”

It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.

The Morning View From Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive is a short stretch of road that splits off from Allen Street and then hugs the shoreline as it runs down to Greenhead Lobster.  At that fork in the road there is a manhole cover — specifically, manhole cover #123, which we know because all Stonington manhole covers bear green, neatly spray-painted identification numbers.  When the lobstermen who moor their boats in the western edge of the Stonington harbor drive to Greenhead to park their pickup trucks and take their skiffs out to their big boats in the morning, they hit old #123 as they veer onto Ocean Drive and make a distinctive “clink CLUNK” sound as the manhole cover rattles under the weight of the passing trucks.  Most mornings, that clink CLUNK is the first sound I hear.

Ocean Drive is a bit of a misnomer, because the Atlantic Ocean is still several miles away, shielded from the harbor by many islands.  But it’s not hard to imagine that, as the lobstermen turn left at the Ocean Drive split, give #123 a good rattle, smell the salt air, and catch the sunrise view shown above in the morning, it helps them get mentally ready for another hard day of lobstering.

Lobsters’ Day Off

There are always outboard boats coming into and heading out of the main pier at Stonington harbor, but you can tell whether the lobster fleet is out in force by the number of boats tied up at the floating outboard dock. 

The lobster crews take the outboard boats out to their larger craft and anchor them in the harbor before they board the bigger boats to head out to sea for some serious lobstering.  If the floating dock is empty, that means the big boats are out and hauling up hundreds of lobster traps, hoping for a good catch.  If the dock is full, as it was this morning, that means the lobster crews are taking it easy and bracing themselves for tomorrow’s work day.

For the lobsters, Sunday tends to be a day of rest.

The Lure Of Lobstering

The official welcome sign outside of Stonington says the town is Maine’s largest lobster port, and the visual evidence around here supports that assertion. You see the paraphernalia of the lobster business pretty much everywhere, from the lobster boats at anchor in the harbor to the brightly colored buoys, coiled ropes, and stacked rows of lobster traps seen on the properties around town. Especially traps. More traps than you can imagine!

And it appears that the younger generation is embracing Stonington’s traditional occupation. According to statements from this year’s graduates published in the local newspaper, a number of the 2020 graduates of the Deer Isle-Stonington High School — both male and female — are planning on “lobstering” as their career. It’s the kind of future plan you wouldn’t see from a student in, say, Columbus, Ohio.

My hat is off to the kids who are going into the lobster trade. It’s a tough, physically demanding job that requires you to get up before dawn and spend your days on the water, going from buoy to buoy, hauling traps up from the ocean floor, removing any catch, rebaiting the traps with yukky objects that lobsters like, and winching the traps back down again. But it makes a living, and you get to be your own boss. From the decisions of the local high school kids, that’s still an attractive option.

When The Fog Rolls In

We’re fog-bound this morning. The thick fog crept in like a living thing, blanketing the harbor, oozing up the hillside, and invading every nook and cranny to the point where even our neighbor’s house was rendered distant and indistinct through the foggy wisps.

I like the fog because it’s a tangible reminder that we’re in a seaside community. I also like the cool spritz on the skin that the fog brings. But I can understand why the lobstermen hate it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be out on the water with this grey haze shrouding the normal landmarks, without knowing what rocky outcropping or boat might be lurking nearby. It’s one reason why lobstering is a dangerous, tough business.