David Cousens, the president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association since 1991, has decided to step down from the advocacy group.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s time for the younger generation to step up,” the South Thomaston lobsterman said Thursday. “I’m retiring from the political [stuff].”
Cousens says he officially will step down at the MLA annual meeting, which will be held Friday, March 2 as part of the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.
Cousens, 60, said he wants more time to focus on lobster fishing, spare time to spend with his first grandchild who is expected to be born soon, and less time on the road driving to fishery management gatherings throughout the Northeast.
“I burned out I don’t know how many trucks,” said Cousens, adding he drives between 25,000 and 30,000 miles each year just going to meetings.
He also said someone else should take the lead in addressing what has turned into the dominant factor that likely will shape Maine’s $500 million lobster fishery for years to come: whale conservation.
As Maine’s lobster fishery has changed in recent decades, with many fishermen going further offshore and using more durable rope and multi-trap trawls, it also has faced increased scrutiny from regulators and conservationists who say whales are increasingly at risk of entanglements. In 2009 and again in 2014, lobstermen were required to change how they fish in order to reduce the threat of entanglement to whales, which are protected by federal law.
But the problem still persists. In the past year 18 North Atlantic right whales, out of an estimated population of only 450, have been found dead along the East Coast and Atlantic Canada, many of them from fishing gear entanglements or ship strikes. None of the dead whales have been found in the Gulf of Maine, but still last month three whale advocacy groups sued the federal government over what they say are inadequate protections for whales from lobster fishing gear.
Cousens said he’s had a feeling for a while that a lawsuit was in the works.
“Whales will dominate the fishery for the foreseeable future,” Cousens said.
Lobster landings have soared in Maine since Cousens became the head of MLA in 1991, from 30 million pounds that year to 130 million pounds in 2016.
Much of that increase can be attributed to factors such as an optimal warming of ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine and a decrease in predation that resulted from overfishing of cod, but Cousens said some management measures promoted by MLA helped boost the gulf’s lobster population.
Getting other states and Canadian provinces to mark reproductive females with v-shaped notches on their tails and return them to the water — something Maine fishermen have done for several decades — provided “huge” benefits for the broader fishery, Cousens said. He said he traveled throughout New England and Atlantic Canada to promote the practice.
Getting strict reductions in the 1990s in the amount of lobster that southern New England groundfish boats were allowed to keep after dragging them up in their nets also was a key management victory for Maine lobstermen, he said. Draggers were coming back to port with “thousands” of pounds of lobster bycatch, but new rules limited them to 100 pounds per day.
The restriction greatly helped protect the stock of large, reproductive females in the Gulf of Maine, Cousens said.
“That was a huge deal,” he said. “If we had not stopped that, we never would have gotten to 130 million pounds [of harvested lobster in Maine in 2016].”
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Cousens proved himself as a very effective advocate for one of the most important industries in the region.
“Over the years I’ve worked on many different issues with Dave,” Keliher wrote Friday in an email. “His passion and energy were always evident, and his unwavering dedication to the Maine lobster industry and the resource it depends on was unmatched.”
Arnie Gamage, a South Bristol lobsterman, said in a statement that Cousens was good at talking to fishermen and politicians alike and was not afraid to tell someone if he thought they were “talking nonsense.”
Cousens’ commitment to protecting the fishery has been “unbelievable,” he added.
“I don’t think anyone realizes the number of hours and the phone calls he’s put in,” Gamage said. “And he’s done it for the good of the industry.”
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