STONINGTON — Around 2 a.m. each morning, a parade of trucks from around the region begins the trip down to the Stonington docks, marking the start of another day of lobstering in Maine.
Fishermen from across the region step onto their boats before the sun has risen to pull lobsters traps, dealers await their return with the iconic crustacean and restaurants get ready to drop them into boiling pots of water. Ice cream shops have flavors based on them, gift shops capitalize on their popularity and hungry tourists want to eat them.
In short, a large part of coastal Hancock County and beyond depend on lobster.
One of the locals that has made her living off Homarus americanus is Julie Eaton, a member of Stonington’s 300-plus lobster boat fleet. She’s been at it for 39 years now and to her it’s not just a job, it’s a way of life.
“For me, fishing is who I am,” she said. “You have to have the drive to go every day… You have to get up and you have to go haul. For me, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
That way of life for Eaton and hundreds of others in Maine may soon enter choppy waters. The industry faces increased pressure from stricter regulations, offshore wind development and climate change.
“We’re really facing some big issues,” she said. “We’re not without challenges. I personally believe our coastal communities and our islands – our way of life – is incredibly precious. It’s historical and it’s worth maintaining.”
The love of lobstering
Every fisherman has their own story, but almost all of them say they got into the business because they love working on the ocean.
Unlike many who enter the business, Eaton didn’t grow up in a fishing family or plan on getting into the field. She went to college in Salt Lake City, Utah, and wanted to become a pilot and fly for Lifeflight.
“I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to do something with my ability to fly to help people,” she said.
But she got into a terrible car crash and the injuries she sustained would prevent her from meeting the requirements of a professional pilot. During her time in the hospital, she had a lobsterman friend who would visit and he took her out on his boat.
“I just fell in love with being on the water,” said Eaton, who lives in Deer Isle. “For me, it really is soul food. It provides me that inner peace.”
She began diving for scallops and later progressed into lobstering – starting out as a sternman in Vinalhaven – and worked her way up to captaining her own boat.
David Horner, a longtime Southwest Harbor lobsterman, grew up in New Jersey, but spent a couple summers in Jonesport, hanging around the wharves.
“It was fascinating to me,” he said.
His family later moved to Maine and he would go on to start a 50-year career of fishing. He likes the freedom the life affords and the ability to provide for his family.
“Sure beats a job,” he jokes. “I made a living and I don’t regret a bit of it.”
Jay Marsh, a Blue Hill lobsterman, also didn’t have the deep family lobstering tradition that so many of the fishermen have and came to the industry after crashing out of the restaurant business.
In the late 1990s, Marsh and his restaurants were struggling and he was looking for a way to make some fast money. He ended up turning to lobstering.
“I had three restaurants that were in dire trouble,” he said. “So I jumped in the back of a boat.”
By 2004, he totally divested of his restaurants and started fishing full time. The decision seems to have panned out for him.
“I just love being out on the water,” he said. “I get to see the sun rise every morning.”
Giulia Cardoso, who fishes out of Bar Harbor, has one of the most circuitous routes. Cardoso, who moved to Maine from her native Italy, was a graduate student at College of the Atlantic.
“My thesis was looking at the local lobster fishery and, as a researcher, I always really believed that you can’t study something unless you really know what you’re talking about,” she said. “So I thought the best way to learn about fishing was to go fishing.”
Cardoso had experience as a diver and was no stranger to being on the water. A local lobsterman agreed to let her haul traps with him, and she ended up falling in love with it. After finishing her degree, she started to fish full time.
Besides her affection for the ocean, she’s passionate about being able to provide food for people – a piece of lobstering that can be overlooked.
“We’re producing food,” Cardoso said. “We’re bringing food to people’s tables.”
For the hundreds of lobstermen in the region, things are going pretty well at the moment, even with the pandemic. Stonington, the so-called lobster capital of Maine, remained the top lobster port in Maine in 2020 by ex-vessel value. The fleet pulled nearly 12 million pounds of lobster from the sea, raking in $43 million.
Southwest Harbor also broke into the top 10 ports for the first time in recent memory. In total, Hancock County landed more than 30 million pounds of lobster – the most by any county in the state – for a total of $127.9 million. That was a dip, though, compared to 2019. That year, Hancock County caught 31.5 million pounds of lobster for $152 million.
This year, prices are sky high. Late last month, Eaton said she was getting $6.90 for shedders, $7.90 for hardshells and $8.90 for hardshell selects.
“It’s just unheard of,” she said.
About 40 minutes down the road, Marsh agreed that things were booming. He also had shedders going for a boat price of $7 a pound.
“I’ve never seen shedders even close to $5,” he said. Most of the time they are closer to $3.80. “This year, it’s extraordinary.”
Both Eaton and Marsh did say that although the prices are high, that extra money isn’t flowing straight into their pockets, nor do they always translate to sky-high profit margins.
“Fishermen right now are making very good money, but we are also paying extremely high bait prices and fuel prices,” Eaton said.
What lies ahead
While things are going well, if you talk to almost any Downeast lobstermen about the future of their industry, the conversation will come to two things: right whales and wind turbines.
Lobstermen up and down the coast are awaiting new regulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that are aimed to help protect the North Atlantic right whale. These regulations were prompted by a lawsuit filed against NOAA by several large environmental organizations and could include requirements to add more traps to each buoy line to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water, inserting weak links in ropes, restrictions on fishing areas during times when whales are predicted to be there and the use of color-coded rope to identify the origin of gear found entangled on whales.
Many fishermen question if the motive behind the environmental organizations is to do things that will ultimately save the whales or just put the lobster fishery out of business.
They say that the potential rules, which are expected to be finalized later this year, paint the industry with a broad brush and don’t make sense for most Maine fishermen, who fish close to shore.
“It’s sad that lobster is being put out of business on the whale angle,” said Horner, who is a member of the Lobster Zone B Council.
Like many lobstermen, he maintained that the lobster industry was not what was hurting the whales and compared the environmental agencies that have been suing in federal court to leaches who suck the life out of thriving businesses.
He saw the next generation being burdened with overly strict rules for a fishery that has already imposed several regulations to keep itself sustainable.
“Rules are like salt in a recipe,” Horner said. “No salt is no good. A little bit is perfect, but they keep pouring more in until they ruin things.”
He was waiting on the final rules, but “no matter what it is, it’s going to be a compromise in the wrong direction.”
Marsh agreed that the rules didn’t really seem to be in the interest of saving the species and made no sense for someone like him, who fishes in Salt Pond in Blue Hill.
“The waters I fish, there is no way a right whale is ever going to be up there,” he said.
Many local fishermen state they’ve never even seen a right whale.
“I don’t think any lobstermen don’t think that whales have the right to live,” Marsh said. “Whether we are bothering them or not is the question.”
Scientists have pushed back on the assertion right whales aren’t found in Maine. In 2019, several right whale experts wrote a letter stating that the endangered whales have been observed in Maine lobster management zone waters every month of the year, sometimes in significant numbers. The scientists also noted that it is entirely plausible that fishermen have never seen a right whale in Maine waters, but, because they have long dive times, no dorsal fin and are difficult to see on the water, that doesn’t mean they are entirely absent.
“Because right whales are difficult to see, are distributed unpredictably, and because Maine waters have high concentrations of the whales’ primary prey and have not been subject to systematic surveys in recent years, the numbers of North Atlantic right whales that occur in Maine waters are likely significantly underestimated by fishermen and managers,” the scientists wrote.
Marsh said a lot of fishermen are worried about any reductions for fear it won’t stop there.
“I think a lot of them think if they start cutting back, they’ll keep going,” Marsh said.
An official with NOAA said the agency generally doesn’t talk about pending regulations and would let the potential rules in recent filings speak for themselves until they were finalized.
With their issuance expected soon, it’s understandable that the whale regulations are on the forefront of lobstermen’s minds. But the fishermen have also recently rallied to fight against offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine.
Winter Harbor lobsterman and state Representative Billy Bob Faulkingham has led the charge against offshore wind development and said that fishermen are against them because of their potential to hurt marine life, as well as taking up space in the fishing grounds.
Fishermen have testified in State House hearings that they feel the government is gambling with their livelihoods and the future of marine life in favor of an untested technology.
Islesford lobsterman Richard Howland told the state legislators that between the whale regulations and an uncertain economy, offshore wind would take away thousands of acres of fishing ground and be another hit for the industry.
“We strongly believe that any offshore wind development on the coast of Maine could be a death blow to our industry and our way of life,” Howland, a Zone B Council member, wrote in a letter, along with several other fishermen.
The state has since banned offshore wind development in state waters and officials have said they’ll work with fishermen on any projects in federal waters.
Proponents of offshore wind argue that these projects could be one of the ways to soften the blow of climate change while at the same time creating a whole new industry in the state.
A warming ocean
While right whales and offshore wind are at the forefront of a lot of lobstermen’s minds, there’s another potentially lethal threat for the industry on the horizon. Climate change could alter the way of life for the state’s iconic industry, even if the fishermen are able to navigate the other challenges.
Much of the recent lobster research is looking at its ecology as the Gulf of Maine grows warmer and more acidic.
Though it has the potential to be devastating, the current climate has been a boon for lobstermen Downeast. The center of gravity for the Northeast lobster fishery has gradually shifted northward and currently sits over Maine – helping the state’s landings skyrocket over the years. In 1980, fishermen landed 21.9 million pounds of lobster. Since 2011, the fishery regularly catches north of 110 million pounds.
Maine’s gain has come as the lobster population in places such as Rhode Island has basically disappeared.
“You look back to the 1970s, even to the early 90s, a lot of the production was happening in southern New England,” said Rick Wahle, the director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. “That’s dramatically changed in the past few decades.”
But what happened there could be a cautionary tale for Maine. The state’s current water conditions favor the reproduction of lobster, “but you might think of it as a cresting wave,” Wahle said.
A 2018 study modeled the future of the fishery with temperature increases out to 2050. The warmest scenario that was explored saw the steepest decline in lobster abundance, down 62 percent compared to 2014. The least hot model showed a more gradual decline of about 40 percent.
The projected drop in population is chalked up to temperature-induced decreases in the reproduction of new lobsters and increased predation on small lobsters.
The current conditions in Maine that favor the continuance of high lobster production will likely continue to creep northward. But it’s not as simple as water becoming warmer. It also has to do with the water that’s actually entering the gulf. Wahle and other researchers are looking at the connections between those currents and the nutrients that feed the bottom of the food chain.
Off Maine’s coast, the gulf stream flowing northward and the Labrador Current flowing southward meet. In the past, when the two flows met off Nova Scotia and New England, the colder Labrador Current would bring its nutrient rich waters to Maine, while the warmer flow from the south would divert toward Europe.
The strength of the northern flow now seems to be weakening, meaning warmer and less nutrient-rich water coming to New England.
“It’s like the cold water spigot is turning down a bit and the warm water spigot is turning up a bit,” Wahle said.
One of the other interesting patterns that has emerged with the new water entering the gulf is the decline of lobster larvae, despite the high abundance of lobster.
Female lobsters are producing a high number of eggs, which leads to a lot of the youngest stage of a larval lobster in the gulf. But researchers aren’t seeing the later stages of the larval cycle in the same numbers. It’s as if the enrollment numbers at an elementary school saw a massive drop off in the first few weeks of school.
Scientists have found a strong correlation between the drop in larval lobster numbers and those of Calanus finmarchicus, a copepod that could be intertwined in the lobster’s food web. Researchers are currently working to find out what these young lobsters eat to see if a lack of food could be the source of the bottleneck.
Exactly how long this current boom will continue and what the future for lobstering in Downeast Maine is unclear, but it likely won’t go away in the near future. The 2018 study found that Maine was in a much better position than southern New England because of some of the protective measures employed by the industry, including more restrictive limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobsters, and the marking of egg-bearing females.
“By 2050, by this forecasting model, eastern Maine bears out pretty well,” Wahle said. He emphasized that these models are very simplistic, though beneficial to creating “what-if” scenarios.
“It’s not a doomsday outlook by any means for the next couple of decades,” he said.
Getting to the water
Another issue that can sometimes be put on the back burner with the larger looming threats is access to the waterfront.
As iconic as they are to Maine, according to a 2009 report from the Island Institute, working waterfronts take up just 20 miles of Maine’s 5,300-mile coastline.
“No matter what happens to whales and wind, if they don’t have access to the shore, they can’t do their job,” said Natalie Springuel, who works for the Maine Sea Grant and is based at the College of the Atlantic.
A large portion of the state’s working waterfront is in private hands, raising concerns of what may happen if the real estate market continues to be red hot. Rising property values and taxes could prompt a business, especially one of the smaller ones, to sell a wharf to someone who may not plan to use it as a working waterfront.
“Maine is seeing a lot of changes in its coastal communities as tourism increases and the desire to retire near the water becomes more popular,” a 2019 report from the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association found. “While coastal communities adjust to both a changing population and a changing climate, it is imperative for coastal towns and the state to proactively plan for a future that includes commercial fishing and the working waterfront.”
Many of the state’s fishermen are dependent on lobster for most, if not all, of their income, and changes to the industry will have a significant impact on the economy and the resiliency of the working waterfront, according to the report.
Once a waterfront property does sell, it’s unlikely that it will go back to working waterfront, making proactive strategies tantamount. There are programs to protect working waterfronts, which have helped local piers such as Davis Wharf in Tremont.
The access issue doesn’t just extend to small, private wharfs. Several fishing communities in Hancock County do have public piers, ensuring access to the water. But there are concerns about how much business piers can handle and how fishermen deal with competing interests, whether it be from recreational boaters, cruise ships or tours on the water or increased congestion in parking areas.
Fishermen need space and one place where that pinch is being felt is Bar Harbor. The town pier is shared by tourists, fishermen, yachts, tour boats, recreational boaters and cruise ships, making it a busy place.
“There’s a lot of demand on the public pier in downtown Bar Harbor,” said Springuel. “The fishermen are right smack dab in the chaos of the pier.”
There have been talks about limiting cruise ship traffic and building a new marina at the old state ferry terminal site, which could pull some of the non-fishermen traffic away from the pier.
The lobster dollar
While it’s easy to feel the lobster’s presence in towns along the coast – lobstering is so big in Stonington that lobster boats are on the town seal – it’s not as easy to quantify the social and economic benefits of lobstering. Cardoso, the graduate student who became a commercial fisherman, set out to make an assessment and gauge the importance of cruise ships and commercial fishing to the town of Bar Harbor, a tourist hotspot that is trying to figure out how to handle its cruise ship traffic.
She found that more data is needed to assess the real value of fishing in Maine communities.
The two most cited data points are values and landings of lobster, but that doesn’t give a full picture of what fishing brings to the community, Cardoso said. It’s more of a starting point.
“It’s such a tiny part of what fishing does economically,” she said. “It gives no indication of all the added value of the lobsters or any other seafood product.”
The cruise ship industry is in a much better position to advocate for itself than the individual lobster boats, which act as their own small businesses.
“What really matters to me, and what I think should be considered more often in the policy world, is the cultural and the social importance of activities like fishing,” she said.
In 2017, students at Colby College did a study of the Maine lobster distribution supply chain with a focus on dealer’s contributions to the economy, giving a slightly bigger picture of the industry.
The study found that the wholesale lobster distribution supply chain contributed more than $967 million to Maine’s economy and supported over 5,500 workers in 2016.
But that still is only a sliver of the business and doesn’t show how the money that comes from hauling lobsters spreads through a community. It supports the commercial fishing-adjacent businesses, such as bait shops, shipyards and trap makers, but also keeps coffee shops and grocery stores going in communities where lobstering is king.
“You’re not just affecting the fishermen,” said Cardoso. “You’re affecting entire communities – entire counties, at times. You’re taking jobs and livelihoods away from people other than fishermen.”
The Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington is currently working on research with the University of Maine to develop a metric of social indicators on the health of fishing communities, sort of like how fishery regulators use biological ones on the fishing stock.
The idea is to set thresholds that, if passed, would set off alarm bells, said Carla Guenther, the head scientist at the center.
In community meetings held Downeast, Guenther has heard people say that their community’s entire infrastructure would collapse if lobstering went away. The industry had a sort of gold rush moment, where a lot of people left other jobs to pursue fishing, but Guenther wasn’t sure they’d be able to go back to those jobs if the lobster fishery disappears.
“There may not be people here for the store to sell things to,” she said. “There may not be people here for the carpenters to pound nails for. We don’t know.”
For a place like Stonington, any reductions in the industry could hurt other businesses in town, but because the port is such a big draw from the surrounding area, cuts in the lobstering would also cause pain for the entire region, said Kathleen Billings, the Stonington town manager.
“This affects the whole region,” she said. “Not just here for our stores, our schools, our businesses.”
The town has been looking ahead and trying to build insurance policies against a shrinking fishery, such as beefing up broadband internet and setting aside money to help bolster the waterfront. But Billings fears what could happen if there are severe reductions in the industry and wondered if that could bring on further gentrification in town.
NOAA has also been looking at the gentrification issue. Researcher Rose Jimenez looked at 29 fishing communities along the east coast, and the pressures of gentrification. She noted the dangers of the heavy reliance on a single species in a place such as Stonington
“Stonington is highly engaged and highly reliant on the fishing industry – half of the community works in fishing/agriculture or related fields,” she wrote. “One risk of so much dependency on one species is that if the species has a decline in population or quality, if market forces devalue the product, or if regulatory agencies place a restriction on that species, the economy can take a big hit.”
Despite the early call times, long hours and backbreaking work, lobstermen seem to be happy with their decision to fish.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Cardoso said. She loved that the industry has a sort of fierce independence, but still a strong community aspect – a sort of all-for-one, one-for-all attitude. Plus, she relished the chance to be out on the water and not in a cubicle. “It really combines everything that I love in a way that I hadn’t been able to find before.”
The industry is often a family affair and many hope to pass it onto the next generation.
Marsh, who’s 60, said in a few years he was going to slow down and once his son can work enough traps, Marsh would sell him his boat.
In the meantime, he has also diversified his catch by branching out into crabs. He’s trying to convince other lobstermen to bring him their rock crab, which often ends up in traps but can’t escape through the vents. Diversifying their catch is seen as a way to build more resiliency, though it can be a tough ask with lobsters fetching such a high price.
Even with the challenges ahead, Eaton, the Stonington-based fisherman, just wanted to haul traps and keep her community going so her grandchildren could have the opportunities she did.
“I want to make sure that what I love about being on the ocean – the independence and the freedom – is there for them too if that’s what they choose.”