Facing a declining lobster industry, this Maine lobsterman has a Plan B

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Jeremy Tyler (right) pins up sheeting at his recently-purchased former greenhouse in Blue Hill. The lobsterman and his wife hope to open a coffee shop there in June.
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For a 48-year-old lobsterman, Jeremy Tyler considers himself lucky. But given that the lobster industry appears headed for decline, and concerns about proposed regulations to protect right whales, Tyler wonders whether lobstering is a healthy business to remain in.
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BLUE HILL, Maine — For a 48-year-old lobsterman, Jeremy Tyler considers himself lucky.

Aside from shoulder pain and arm numbness that awakens him five or six times a night, the beefy captain and owner of the All-In, a 38-foot Northern Bay lobster boat that anchors in South Blue Hill, is in good health, he said.

But given Maine-based studies that suggest the U.S. lobster industry is headed for a period of decline, and suspicions that Maine lobstermen share responsibility for the deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales, Tyler wonders whether lobstering is a healthy business to remain in.

“I’ve done progressively worse these last three years,” Tyler said. “I was there for the first thousand-pound day in the Blue Hill area. That was a huge catch. But the last couple of years have been a little hiccup, and we may actually be on the way down permanently.”

“I’m not naive enough to believe that there’s going to be record catches every year,” he added.

So he and his wife, Megan Tyler, are starting a new business in the first floor of a former floral shop off Route 172 that will combine his lobstering with her experience at restaurants. Their building at 162 Ellsworth Road will be a coffee and sandwich shop that will eventually use vegetables grown in the site’s greenhouses and also sell baked goods and Jeremy Tyler’s lobsters.

They bought the two-story structure and its greenhouses in June and recently began renovating it. They hope to open the coffee shop this spring and convert the second floor into an apartment for rent afterward, Megan Tyler said.

“This is something I always wanted to do, but I was never in the right place. It feels good to be doing my own thing,” Tyler said Sunday. “I just want something that is not pretentious, just accessible — just really quality food, something that tourists will come to but that isn’t going to scare away the local folks.”

A 40-year-old former radiology tech at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor who helped manage some Hancock County restaurants when she was in her 20s, Tyler hopes that the coffee shop will give her a fresh start and act as a hedge against more drops in her husband’s earnings.

In terms of lobster weight, the All-In’s catch this year was about 35 percent lower than last year’s, Jeremy Tyler said.

That’s slightly better than what looks to be the industry’s overall take in 2019. As of the end of September, state lobstermen had caught less than 50 million pounds, or 40 percent less than they caught by the end of September 2018, and nearly 40 percent off the five-year average.

Tyler declined to say how many pounds of lobster he caught this year.

“If lobstering is still fruitful enough for me to consider it worth going, then this will be all her business, and I will come up here and help when I can,” Tyler said.

But Tyler is concerned that looming federal regulations aimed at protecting right whales might damage Maine’s lobstering industry by compressing lobstering zones and increasing the number of traps they put on their fishing lines.

So far, federal regulators have discussed requiring Maine lobstermen first to mark ropes they run from traps on the seabed to their buoys to help scientists determine exactly whose lines are snagging right whales.

“That [marking ropes] is not that big of a deal, but it’s more time that I have to work for no money, and my stern man has to work for no money,” said Tyler, who doesn’t believe that Maine lobster lines are snaring the whales.

He fears that future regulations will force lobstermen to increase the number of lobster traps they put on each fishing line. That would overload boat lifts — potentially leading to more injuries for lobstermen as they haul the heavier lines — or compel lobstermen to abandon fishing areas altogether, Tyler said.

This could also force lobstermen to work in tighter groups, which, with the swirling waters off the Maine coast, could create more line entanglements, which are dangerous, he said.

Tyler hopes he can remain a lobsterman.

“I’ve found that, owning a business, I work harder than I would working for somebody,” he said, “but I’m doing what I want to do, so it doesn’t seem as bad. It’s rewarding.”

Related: The Maine lobster industry




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