Maine’s largest lobster port faces an uncertain future

As the sun rose Friday morning, the Stonington lobsters set off for another day of work. They jumped into their canoes, picked up bait and went out to pull their traps.

From the shore of Stonington, an island community that has long boasted the title of Maine’s largest lobster fishing port, the scene was picturesque. But the fishing fleet and the town hall fear the community is far from pretty.

After a judge rules against the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s challenge to fishing regulations meant to protect right whales, it’s not just fishermen who are concerned, but also city officials. Federal regulators will soon begin considering new measures to reduce the risk to whales. This could result in more closures or reductions in the number of fishing lines, and will likely result in fewer dollars flowing through fishing communities.

Last year, Stonington pulled in a record $73 million worth of lobster, nearly $18 million more than the second-largest port. If the fishery experiences a downturn, Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings fears the town could too, accelerating a trajectory towards an economy that relies solely on tourism.

The crew of Calixto, a fishing boat from Stonington, departs early on September 16, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter/BDN

“We’re just going to turn into T-shirts and pull shops,” she said at a Sept. 12 meeting to review the judge’s recent ruling and other threats to the clothing industry. the Peach.

If the cuts are deep enough, “we’re going to end up losing our schools, our stores and everything else,” Billings said.

Town officials are working on an economic resilience plan to help guide Stonington’s future and are now looking at what they can do to help strengthen the fleet to ensure the community is on the year-round island is not empty.

The Select Board considered the idea of ​​participating in a public relations campaign to promote lobster after Seafood Watch, an influential sustainability watchdog, advised consumers to avoid lobster.

“We need a better public relations campaign for our fishing communities,” said Linda Nelson, the town’s director of economic development. “We need the hashtag, we need the sticker, we need the ad campaign for our anglers.”

The board, which has several members in the lobster industry, also debated whether it should lobby Congress for funds to test a new fishing technology that eliminates fishing lines that are at the heart of the ongoing legal tussle between environmental defenders. seeks to save the endangered right whale and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the fishery.

So-called ropeless fishing gear does not use the traditional lobster configuration of a buoy at the surface connected to a trap by fishing line. Instead, traps can be called on demand using an inflatable bladder or buoy release system.

But many lobsters are unwilling to test the equipment, believing it gives tacit approval that Maine lobsters are the cause of the right whale’s demise – a claim they vehemently deny. For the few who test the gear, there is little willingness to talk about it publicly for fear of threats from fellow anglers.

Some city leaders have questioned whether they should try to de-stigmatize equipment testing so Stonington can be on the cutting edge of technology in case it becomes the future of the industry.

“I think it would be helpful … to ask respected anglers to speak up to smooth things over,” said Travis Fifield, a board member who runs Fifield Lobster Co. in Stonington.

Canada has invested $20 million in the development of whale-safe fishing gear, including wireless technology, and the board discussed whether it should push for this. type of investment from the US government.

“I just want to see the guys fishing,” Billings said.

Ginny Olsen, a Maine Lobstering Union leader who fishes in Stonington, is a member of a federal team developing measures to protect the whales.

She expects the coming changes in the fishing industry to have a ripple effect on Maine’s fishing communities, which often don’t have many other economic opportunities. She said fishermen are wondering if they should invest in bigger boats to handle new gear and longer trawl lines, or sell everything now while it still has some value.

A man walks down to a fishing pier in Stonington on September 16, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter/BDN

Olsen doesn’t think more rules for Maine likely wouldn’t help the species since Maine fishermen aren’t endangering the whales. Still, she wants people to understand that any new regulations, which are expected to be discussed later this fall, could be a sea change as regulators try to reduce the risk to whales by nearly 90%.

“They won’t be adjustments,” she said. “These will be large packages.”

This dark cloud hanging over the industry and Stonington has reduced the number of area students entering high school knowing with certainty that they will become lobsters.

Many students from fishing families grew up hearing about climate change and other serious threats to lobster, said Tom Duym, who runs the Eastern Maine Skippers program, an initiative that helps high school students in coastal communities. to explore the maritime domain.

More often than not, he sees students with an interest in lobster earning a trades or associate’s degree as a back-up plan. Duym also tries to introduce these young anglers to other fisheries to help broaden their perspective and give them a chance to diversify.

Though aware of the bleak outlook, Duym hopes these students are a sign of the resilience of Maine’s fishing communities.

“I’m not convinced things aren’t going to adapt and move on yet, and we’ll still have these communities with fishing as a vibrant part of the economy,” he said. “But maybe I’m naive.”

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