Joe Dyer, a sternman on the Jacalwa, cleans traps on Custom House Wharf in Portland on Friday. A cold spring and high bait prices are just two of the challenges confronting lobstermen as the 2019 season gets underway. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This year’s delayed lobster season kicked off with a cold, rainy spring and bait worries, but lobstermen haven’t been idle. Instead, they’ve been hunting for a way to cope with looming North Atlantic right whale protections.

“The overall feeling around the docks this year is pretty glum,” said Jason Joyce of Swans Island. “Catch is low, expenses are high and (there are) stormy forecasts ahead thanks to wealthy, politically connected multinational environmental groups that have been targeting us as their latest fundraising villain.”

Lousy spring weather means many midcoast lobstermen have set only half their traps. Farther Down East, lobstermen have set their traps but the catches are light. Topping it off: Bait prices are about twice what they were last summer in some ports.

Underscoring those challenges is the persistent uncertainty about what right whale protections will do to Maine’s $485 million industry, a concern heightened by recent reports of six right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Many of Maine’s 4,500 licensed commercial lobster fishermen have been following federal efforts to protect the endangered right whale, especially a mandate that the Maine fleet reduce its buoy lines by half to prevent entanglements.

Scientists had pegged the size of the population at 411, but that was before six whales died in June. The rash of deaths has whale advocates talking openly about the threat of extinction, but Maine lobstermen note that all of those deaths happened in Canadian waters, and none were caused by entanglement.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has until September to come up with a detailed plan on how to reduce its buoy lines by half, and has been holding a series of meetings with the industry to review an array of suggestions that range from reducing the number of traps to seasonal closures.

Last week, a top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official sent a letter to Fisheries and Oceans Canada urging that country to enhance its protections for the whales, noting that U.S. fishermen alone cannot do enough to protect a species that is increasingly drawn to Canadian waters.

 

Last week, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative unveiled a video that highlights the state lobster industry’s commitment to sustainability, efforts it has already made to protect the whales and the value of the industry to the Maine economy, especially along the coast.

“We all understand the species is at risk and we need to help them recover,” said Patrice McCarron, the director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “But the data shows we are not the problem. Shrinking the footprint of the Maine lobster industry just to show you’ve done something won’t save the right whale.”

 

SLOW STARTS EVERYWHERE

Many lobstermen appear especially glad to get back to fishing this year to take their minds off the right whale protections that, once implemented, will dramatically change the way that some of them fish. Whatever the protections are, they won’t go into effect until 2020 or 2021.

Off the coast of southern Maine, in the state’s western waters, lobstermen have begun fishing in earnest, with most having set their traps for the summer. The lobsters are just starting to shed and crawl into the traps in shallow waters and eel grass areas.

Only a few years ago, a July start to lobster season would have been expected, but in recent years, warm ocean temperatures have meant earlier molts. It is that molt, when lobsters shed their hard, older shells to grow bigger new ones, that triggers the start of Maine’s summer fishery.

“The water has been colder this year than the last few years, which if you’ve been in Maine this spring, I’m sure you know why: cold and rainy,” said lobsterman Jeff Putnam of Chebeague Island. “That cold water has led to a more normal start to the season, which is early July for Casco Bay.”

Head northeast to midcoast Maine and fishing is still slow. Only half the members of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-Op have set their traps. Drive two hours north, to the little town of Brooklin, and most fishermen are only just now starting to set any traps at all.

In Vinalhaven, the state’s second biggest lobster port, most inshore traps are set, but they aren’t catching much. In this region, the heart of Maine’s $485 million-a-year lobster industry, many fish all year. For them, the summer season starts by moving traps inshore.

“Most people are fishing here, but there isn’t a lot to catch yet,” said Jake Thompson, a fishermen out of Vinalhaven who also chairs the local lobster zone council.

The slow start has postponed, and possibly averted, the immediate crisis facing lobstermen this year: a projected bait shortage. A drop in baby herring prompted regulators to decrease the amount of Maine’s most popular lobster bait that can be landed to feed the lobster traps this spring, summer and fall.

The bait situation was helped by an abundance of Atlantic menhaden, or pogy, that showed up in state waters last month. Maine landed its yearly 2.4 million pound quota of this bait fish in just 24 days and is now seeking regulatory approval to land up to 4.7 million pounds more.

“For now, I imagine a lot of the bait coolers are pretty full,” Putnam said. “The best-case scenario would be that lobstermen start using more bait when the catch picks up and Maine gets more pogy quota at that time to keep up with demand.”

HIGH BAIT PRICES

The weather and strong menhaden harvest may have prevented a bait shortage, but it hasn’t stopped bait prices from soaring, according to some fishermen. Swans Island fishermen are paying $80 a bushel for herring at some docks, according to Joyce. Last summer a typical price for a bushel of herring was $45.

“When I started out of high school in ’88, herring was $6.25 a bushel off the truck, with a high of $7.50 to $8 at the dock,” Joyce said. “That’s an increase of tenfold in 30 years for bait. Needless to say, the lobster price has not kept pace by a long shot.”

In Brooklin, lobsterman David Tarr said bait is available now, due to the slow start, but at a higher price.

“I know it’s higher, but didn’t ask how much – I figured I didn’t really want to know,” said Tarr, who is a member of the state Lobster Advisory Council. “Lobsters will be a little late this year, probably closer to what would have been expected 10 years ago. That’s probably a good thing.”

 


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