After setting out before dawn in a small day boat, a Maine lobsterman pulls up traps by hand from the rocky bottom of the Gulf of Maine.
The first trap to surface contains nothing, as the trap’s “efficiently inefficient” design lets undersized lobsters and other sea creatures enter and exit freely to protect the species and other marine life.
The second trap comes up with several lobsters; however, after measuring the animals’ carapaces, one is too small to keep (a juvenile). Another lobster is of legal size, but there are clusters of black eggs on the underside of the lobster’s tail—indicating she’s a protected breeding female. The fisherman takes a special tool and carves a harmless “V notch” on one of the lobster’s tailfins and throws her back into the water, ensuring this momma will continue to be returned to the water for years to come, even if she’s caught while not actively bearing eggs.
Out of all the traps, only three lobsters can be legally harvested. It’s a lot of work for just a few “keepers,” but lobstering in Maine isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.
SUSTAINING A WAY OF LIFE
For 150 years, the Maine Lobster fishery has been defined by its commitment to fishing sustainably, with many of its practices created by fishermen and self-policed. This commitment to sustainability is the driving force of the entire industry.
“I’ve been out on the water for as long as I can remember, and I’m proud to continue the tradition of so many before me, including my father and grandfather,” said Brian Billings, a 4th generation fisherman. “Our office is the ocean, and that means having a deep commitment to protecting not only our lobster stocks, but every other species in the Gulf of Maine—something we hope diners consider when eating Maine Lobster.”
The Maine Lobster industry is no stranger to challenges both on and off the water. Having faced the impacts of climate change, global trade disruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently the fight to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales – the next decade will be a pivotal time for one of the most beloved American industries.
Scrutiny of the Maine Lobster industry has been at the forefront of the discussions around endangered North Atlantic right whales, with ship strikes being the leading cause of serious injury and death. With fewer than 400 right whales remaining, the urgency to protect the species is at an all-time high, and proposed regulations are set to bring major changes to the Maine Lobster fishery.
Well before the most recent regulations, the fishery implemented proactive changes to their gear to make it safer for right whales. These changes have been in place for years and have made a positive difference. Changes include:
- Converting to “sinking” rope that falls to the ocean floor, reducing the risk of entanglement
- Reducing the amount of rope in the water by setting more traps on each buoy line
- Added “weak links” to gear to allow whales to break away if entangled
Following the adoption of these measures in 2009, there was a 90% reduction in known U.S. lobster gear entanglements.
However, in 2019, a successful lawsuit filed against the federal government means that the risk to right whales must be cut to essentially zero over the next 10 years. This has led many to believe that removing all rope from the water and practicing “ropeless fishing” is the only possible solution.
Never before having been used at a large scale in a commercial fishery, ropeless fishing gear relies on wireless signals and expensive technology. Lobstermen are participating in initial tests, but conversion to this high-tech gear is years away from being commercially feasible with no proof if implemented in Maine that it would save a single whale.
“In Maine we’ve been doing our part for years, and we stand ready to continue to work with regulators and scientists to protect these endangered whales,” said Kristan Porter, a lobsterman who fishes out of Cutler, Maine. “The fact is there has never been a right whale death or serious injury attributed to our gear. We can’t act alone to save the species – it’s going to take widespread collaboration across industries and countries.”
As the fishery fights to protect right whales and the way of life that is so critical to Maine, the industry is still eyeing innovation and growth.
MAINE LOBSTER 2.0
Despite the challenges looming, the industry is focused on its next chapter—continually innovating as more consumers turn to seafood. Advances in the processing sector have led to more lobster product formats, more variety in sales channels from home cooks to retailers to restaurants, as well as an uptick in international consumption over the past decade. Many businesses in Maine have also looked beyond the popular whole and lobster tail formats to create unexpected products including Maine Lobster cakes, mac & cheeses, infused butters, and even Maine Lobster fertilizers created with lobster shells.
“We know we have a great product with a great sustainability story,” said Ben Conniff co-founder of Luke’s Lobster. “As we look ahead to the next five years, we know there will be challenges, but we’re also excited about the opportunity to do more with Maine Lobster, introducing consumers to new ways to think about and use the crustacean.”
As the global food landscape continues to shift and diners demand more from their food, the Maine Lobster industry will continue to deliver, working through challenges and protecting their way of life.
There’s a saying in the industry: “It’s not the easy way to do it, but it’s the right way to do it.” For more than 150 years, Maine Lobstermen have been doing it the right way, and that won’t stop anytime soon.
To learn more about the Maine Lobster industry and efforts to protect right whales visit rightwhalesandmainelobster.com.
Marianne LaCroix is the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, a commodity group that seeks to promote the core values of the Maine Lobster industry, which are sustainability and traceability that’s deeply rooted in tradition.