Maine Lobstermen's Association President Kristan Porter stands on Widgery Wharf in Portland on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021 during a press conference. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Lobsterman Mike Johnson mended traps on Widgery Wharf at lunchtime on Tuesday, getting them ready for offshore winter fishing. In the colder months, that’s where the lobsters go, and fishermen like Johnson follow.

But maybe not this year.

New federal rules, aimed at protecting endangered right whales, seek to close a huge swath of productive winter lobstering territory off Maine’s coast. However, in October, a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the plan until the science behind it could be further scrutinized.

Lobstermen stand on Widgery Wharf in Portland on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021 during a press conference held by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Environmentalists then took counter measures in court, further entangling the rules in legal maneuvering. An appeals judge is expected to make a decision on their argument any day now.

It’s an important decision, many Maine lobstermen already have traps set in the disputed waters and are counting on them for winter income.

That’s why, not far from where Johnson was mending his wire traps, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association held a press conference announcing a fundraising appeal to the general public. The association wants to raise $10 million for what it foresees as endless, costly court clashes over right whale supporters and their industry.

Without the financial means to fight both the government and environmental activists, lobstermen said their very existence is at stake.

Mike Johnson mends traps for offshore lobstering on Widgery Wharf in Portland on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“We need to level the playing field and make this a fair fight,” said Lobstermen’s Association Vice President Dustin Delano.

President Kristan Porter said his association was assembling the best legal team they could find.

“It’s not cheap,” Porter said “but we need to be able to stand and fight.”

The offshore fishery currently in question covers 950 square miles of ocean, about 30 miles off the coast, from Mount Desert Island to Casco Bay. Federal regulators want it closed from October through January.

The closure is meant to protect endangered right whales traversing the Gulf of Maine from Canadian waters to the Florida coast. Maine lobstermen, who have already switched to non-floating and breakaway lines in an effort to protect the scarce mammals, said they are not to blame for increased mortalities seen in recent years.

“The last known entanglement in Maine lobster gear was 17 years ago,” said Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron, “and the whale survived.”

Lobster boats and gear populate wharves on Portland Harbor on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Lobstermen speaking at the press conference said they feared the offshore regulations currently proposed would creep inshore, where most of them fish, eventually choking off their livelihoods.

“Can you imagine Stonington or Jonesport without lobster boats?” said Delano. “That’s an unthinkable future.”

They also stressed how much money their industry brings into the state and how it supports communities beyond fishermen. According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine’s 2020 lobster catch was worth $406 million. That was down from $491 million in 2019.

“That’s why we need everyone to step up and help us save the fishery,” Delano said.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.