Dave Cousens, 60, of South Thomaston is stepping down Friday as the longtime head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Now,” he says, “I’ll be free to say what needs to be said.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Dave Cousens is stepping down as head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association at the Fishermen’s Forum on Friday, but the South Thomaston fisherman is not going away.

He is handing over the state’s largest and oldest lobster trade group to a trusted vice president, but the outspoken 60-year-old who trained to be a teacher said he is just getting warmed up.

During his 27-year run, Cousens learned there are some things the MLA president just can’t say. You can’t let loose with your personal opinions about climate change (“If you can’t see it, you’re blind”) or public investment in infrastructure (“Canada is kicking our ass”).

“Holding my tongue, that’s hard for a guy like me,” Cousens said. “Some would say I never did learn, but trust me, there’s a lot I didn’t say, a whole helluva lot. When the head of the MLA speaks, you don’t speak for yourself, you speak for membership, and that’s not easy, because we’ve got 1,200 different points of view. But now I’ll be free to say what needs to be said. I think there’s value in that, both for the MLA and the fishery. It could be fun.”

Cousens took over the leadership of the MLA from former president Ed Blackmore in 1991. At the time, Maine’s lobster fishery was valued at $72.2 million and its 6,800 licensed fishermen caught 30.8 million pounds of lobster in 2,000 traps. He has endured several market gluts, a regulatory battle over the gear impact on right whales, Canadian protests, lobster blockades and publishing the first marketwide price report to guard against dealer price manipulation.

Now, Cousens is leaving a fishery at what might be its peak, one that has almost doubled its value three times over and its volume two times over, and the accolades will be flowing at this weekend’s forum, which is the biggest event in a Maine industry valued at $533 million in 2016. The MLA will be selling T-shirts emblazoned with Cousens’ motto, “Fish smarter, not harder,” at the event.

“His unwavering passion for the Maine lobster industry and the resource it so depends on is unmatched,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

WEATHERING ROUGH SEAS WITH MEMBERSHIP

Cousens’ position has given him the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, including famous reporters such as Dan Rather and Joan Lunden, who wanted to ride on a real Maine lobster boat, or politicians like Leon Panetta, the former CIA director, and Hillary Clinton, who hosted Cousens at a White House dinner. Yes, the White House served up Maine lobster, although Cousens seemed to recall that it was just the tails, not the whole crustacean.

But it hasn’t always been easy. Cousens is fond of telling people he has burnt out 10 trucks during his presidency, racking up tens of thousands of miles driving to board meetings and lobster hearings not just in Maine, but all along the Eastern Seaboard and the Canadian Maritimes. He ruefully recalls the painful wave of personal attacks sparked by MLA’s support for enlarging escape vents on lobster traps, a period he described as the most challenging of his tenure.

Support for conservation efforts such as expanding escape vents – adding one-sixteenth of an inch to the escape vent gave juvenile lobsters a better shot at reaching reproductive age, and possibly bolstered stock numbers with a new generation of baby lobsters – has been a trademark of the Cousens era. The industry is generally devoted to conservation, he said, but there are always a few stragglers that need convincing.

Cousens usually takes on the role of chief persuader with glee, but the vent fight was tough. One disgruntled member tore up his membership card in front of Cousens.

“People said the world was going to end if we made that vent any bigger, but I told them I’d fished traps with the bigger vents and it didn’t hurt me none,” Cousens said. “They wouldn’t listen. ‘Liar,’ they called me. I remember one meeting there were hundreds of them, angry, saying they’d lose 25 percent of their landings. I told them that wouldn’t happen, we had no choice, and guess what? It didn’t. A year later, not one complaint. The world didn’t end.”

He had the same “the world won’t end” conversation when promoting Maine’s practice of marking egg-bearing female lobsters with a V-notch on their tails to protect the broodstock of the fishery throughout the other East Coast lobstering states and Canada. He learned to hold his tongue during those V-notching road trips, he said. Frank talk may have been welcomed, but too much of Cousens’ sass and sarcasm would hurt the cause, he said.

South Thomaston’s Dave Cousens took over leadership of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association from Ed Blackmore in 1991. Now Cousens is leaving a thriving fishery. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

SONS CHARTING THEIR OWN COURSES

Cousens began his advocacy role almost a decade before he took over for Blackmore. He’d never even heard of the MLA when he was in his early 20s and got wind of a plan to increase the maximum size limit of a lobster that could be landed in Maine. He knew those big lobsters are the best breeders, producing more offspring than smaller lobsters. Taking them for short-term gain would be a huge long-term loss for the fishery.

He didn’t know what he was doing when he pointed his pickup toward Augusta to complain at a hearing on the matter. Once there, he ran into Blackmore, who liked his spunk and dedication to conservation at such a young age and invited him to join the MLA. A few years later, Cousens was named board vice president, which he only later realized had marked him as Blackmore’s eventual successor.

“If I’d only known what I was getting into,” Cousens said with a chuckle. “Nah, who am I kidding. I’ve loved it.”

But Cousens said it’s time for a new generation of lobstermen to lead the group. He said the upcoming regulatory battle over how lobstermen and right whales can share the same waters is going to be a tough one that will require the full attention and energy of incoming president Kristan Porter of Cutler. Porter and the next generation of leaders also will have to navigate the landings reduction that many in the industry believe is coming, Cousens said.

Cousens’ sons, all three of whom are lobstermen, are charting their course through those unsettled waters now. One has decided to go all-in with the big boat able to fish the deep offshore waters where many scientists believe the lobster population is heading. One is sticking closer to shore, but still having to wrestle with big investments such as new boat engines. Another will be fishing off one of the islands that Cousens can see in the distance when standing on his deck.

“I don’t envy them,” Cousens said. “They’ve never known the lean years, and believe me, despite the last few record-breaking years, there were lean years where I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills. But they’ve only known good times. I hope that’s all they ever know. But the boom can’t last forever. Temperatures are going up in the Gulf of Maine. The next generation, they’re going to have to deal with that.”

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