The National Climate Assessment released recently highlights the impacts of climate change across the country, including on our coastal communities. Maine fishermen are already seeing the effect of warming waters and shifting species. Between climate change and the current trends in the health of the lobster fishery, there is little doubt that the economic base of our coastal communities will change in the years ahead.
How it changes depends on actions fishermen, community leaders, government officials and all of us who care about these communities can take. As South Thomaston lobsterman Dave Cousens said recently, “People need to plan for it now, but it’s hard to do when you don’t know exactly what will happen.”
He’s right. Uncertainty makes action more difficult. But we need to take action. The economy of Maine’s coastal communities relies heavily on the lobster fishery, and this reliance puts our communities at risk if the resource or markets shifts. Each of the 4,500 licensed lobstermen own their businesses. When you add in sternmen, lobster buyers, bait dealers and all of the other Mainers who are directly supported by the lobster fishery, lobstering is more than a billion-dollar business.
However, there are steps that fishermen, policymakers and those of us who live in coastal communities can take to minimize the adverse impacts of shifting marine resources and changing markets. These actions include supporting the development of new businesses and increasing the profitability of existing fishing businesses by lowering costs and increasing the value of the product.
To do this, we need to provide technical training programs to fishermen who want to diversify into shellfish and seaweed aquaculture. Technical assistance programs exist, but more funding is needed to reach more fishermen. Because it takes at least three to four years to acquire a lease and grow oysters, mussels or scallops, fishermen and coastal communities need to start this process now.
With the cost of bait and fuel escalating, at the same time that the price buyers are paying for lobsters remains low, fishermen need to pay close attention to the profitability of their businesses. Improvements in lobster handling practices, such as not throwing lobsters or lobster crates around or installing a chiller, can help ensure fishermen land a quality, high-value product. Some Maine fishermen have already made these changes, and it has helped increase their bottom line since they can maximize the value of their catch.
Finally, as a state, we need to invest more in marketing Maine lobsters. Some of this investment started with the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative — a newly established entity that is promoting the general Maine lobster brand. Maintaining these investments is critical to the long-term future of the fishery.
At the individual seafood business level, there is opportunity to expand the market by building on the MLMC. For some businesses, it may make sense to market a portion of their catch directly to consumers or restaurants or otherwise engage in marketing beyond putting their lobsters in a truck. For other businesses it may mean telling the story behind the fishermen and communities where the lobsters are caught.
Implementing these solutions requires fishermen, policymakers, the industry and our communities to work together. There is no magic solution, and fishing businesses will respond in a way that makes sense for them, but everyone must keep an open mind about the solutions that will keep our region thriving. Strengthening the economy of our coastal communities through a broader diversity of businesses, markets and improved profitability for individual fishermen will help our coastal communities remain strong in the face of climate change or other shifts in the lobster fishery.
Nick Battista is the marine programs director at the Island Institute, where he oversees the Institute’s work with fishermen and fishing communities. Prior to joining the Island Institute, Battista earned a masters in marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island.