With an overcast sky in the background Friday, hundreds of fishermen from both Maine and away talked fish, lobsters, scallops and — mostly — survival at the 34th annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum, held again at the Samoset Resort in Rockport.
“It’s not our grandfather’s fishery anymore. We all wish to God it were. But it’s not,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
That bleak sentiment seemed to be a barometer of the times, as fishermen at the forum learned about proposed new regulations to try to breathe life back into the once-profitable scallop fishery and checked out the pricey gear some will need to comply with new federal whale entanglement regulations.
They even got to share their troubles with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who dropped in to discuss the state’s fisheries. Both have noted the plight of the groundfish industry.
“Every year, Maine’s Fishermen’s Forum provides us with an invaluable opportunity to collectively take stock of our fishing industries and chart a course for our future,” Snowe said in a statement. “Undoubtedly, this has become an increasingly troubling task, as more and more fishermen find themselves at a crossroads — facing the very real prospect of leaving their profession due to forces beyond their control.”
McCarron moderated the association’s annual meeting Friday morning, and change was the underlying current of the morning session.
With sinking lobster prices on everyone’s mind, the crowd of lobstermen voted in an informal show of hands to open up their board of directors to nonfishermen.
“I think there are so many new challenges in the industry, this organization needs new ideas and new faces,” David Black, a Belfast lobsterman, said after the meeting. “The MLA has done a terrific job for 55 years, but things are changing, and we need to change with them.”
Black and fellow Belfast lobsterman Wayne Canning said that last fall’s low prices propelled the lobster industry into a crisis. Canning said he remembers when the dock price for lobster was $1.90 a pound, less money than he needed to break even.
“We put the taste of cheap lobster in people,” Black said. “It was cheaper per pound than anything else in the meat market. We dropped below the profitability bottom line.”
And in some ways, the lobster fishery is the good news.
Speakers and fishermen at a seminar on the proposed area management plan for scallop fishing had a lot of opinions — and some trepidation — about how to make a new system work. It has been suggested as a way to increase the numbers of scallops, which have been depleted in recent years.
“For me, this is about scallopers taking responsibility for the resource they’re dependent on,” said Will Hopkins of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center.
Hopkins said that the scallop fishermen are “cutting our own throats” with their current selling practices, which include lumping fresh-caught Maine scallops in with scallops that have spent days frozen out at sea.
“I think that trying to sell more locally, learning lessons from farmers and doing community-supported fisheries — these are all things we can do,” he said.
Many who spoke about the area management plan said that it should happen slowly and with a lot of input from fishermen.
Andy Mays of Southwest Harbor is a scallop diver who is always on the Scallop Advisory Council, formed by the Legislature several years ago. Mays said that now he can do a whole dive and get as few as eight scallops. He remembers much more productive past dives, and said that he is slightly more optimistic about the industry’s future.
“It used to be, if you set your bag down, little scallops would fly in every direction,” he said. “It was like shaking a snow globe. I haven’t seen that in a long time — but I saw a little bit of it this year.”
The Fishermen’s Forum began Thursday and is scheduled to run through Saturday, when sessions on ocean energy, the halibut fishery, herring management and working waterfront issues, among others, are scheduled.