October 20, 2019
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Maine has a dangerous lobster dependence, without a Plan B

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A lobster buoy pokes through the ice on Portland Harbor on Feb. 17, 2015.

Maine fishermen marked a pair of pocket-lining milestones last year: The lobster fishery had its most valuable year yet, and so did Maine’s commercial fisheries in their entirety.

Fishermen hauled in nearly $457 million worth of lobster, an all-time high. All together, Maine’s fisheries were worth $585.3 million last year, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Of course, those two figures are closely linked, which is the crux of yet another fisheries-related milestone for Maine — a worrisome one: The state hit an all-time high last year in terms of the lobster’s share of Maine’s fisheries value. The lobster accounted for 78.1 percent of it. That’s a jump from the 2013 figure of 68.5 percent.

Maine is in the midst of a lobster boom. But Maine’s dependence on the lobster, almost to the exclusion of other species that used to deliver significant value, is cause for concern in the same way as a small town’s heavy dependence on a paper mill for employment and economic activity.

“When you look at the pie, it is so large with respect to the value of the lobster fishery, so if something happens to that fishery, I don’t know where we go,” said Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias and a former lobsterman.

Marine scientists have sounded the alarm for several years, warning that the Gulf of Maine is becoming a lobster monoculture — but there’s no clear path away from that dangerous reality.

The conditions in the Gulf of Maine have aligned just right to support a lobster boom. Other historic fisheries such as cod and shrimp, meanwhile, have all but collapsed. No Maine fishery comes close to competing with the lobster fishery in terms of value. Herring, while vulnerable to overfishing, are generally plentiful, but they largely support the lobster fishery as bait.

Scientists and policymakers can urge lobstermen to diversify, but the economics at the moment offer little reason to do so.

There are a few promising signs that Maine’s fisheries could gradually turn away from a dangerous dependence on the lobster.

— The scallop fishery has started to rebound following the implementation of a number of new conservation measures since 2007, such as shorter seasons, restrictions on pursuing smaller scallops, and real-time reporting from fishermen so regulators can adjust catch limits and scalloping season lengths in smaller areas rather than apply the same rules as if large swaths of the Maine coast were a uniform ecosystem. These measures took effect following efforts to more closely involve fishermen in scallop management. Fishermen landed 584,000 pounds of scallops last year after the fishery bottomed out in 2005 at 33,000 pounds.

— Voters in November approved a $7 million bond issue to fund new infrastructure that allows research, fishing and business collaboratives to conduct much-needed research and development in Maine’s seafood sector. The Maine Department of Marine Resources is starting to set up the process for awarding those funds in partnership with the Maine Technology Institute.

— There are efforts afoot to increase aquaculture and develop markets for smaller fisheries such as soft-shell clams.

These efforts should be encouraged, especially as times are good for the lobster industry, so those who depend on the oceans for a living aren’t without options should conditions quickly change.



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