State of Maine: Lobstermen caught in crossfire

Sued by a customer burned by hot coffee, a well-known food chain started putting a warning on its cups. “Caution: Contents are hot.” Other vendors followed suit. Hmm. When one orders coffee, one expects it to be hot. In fact, that is the program, right? “A black coffee, please.” Does anyone ask how hot you want it?

If it is cool enough to take a big gulp, it is not hot enough. You want to have to take the first few sips as an inhalation that skims off a vapor of brew from the very edge of the cup. Because you want your coffee hot.

A similarly mystifying warning came last weekend to vacationing beachgoers in Maine. A newspaper article reported that the National Weather Service warned of Maine’s “deceptively cold and potentially deadly coastal waters …”

Hancock and Washington counties were the focus of the warning, and it must be said that the National Weather Service spoke the truth. That ocean water? It’s cold. But the National Weather Service is concerned about tourists “up from Florida” who “don’t expect it.” Expect it or not, a quick dip of the toes into the water at Sand Beach would be all the education a Floridian or anyone else would need.

There are plenty of hazards in the ocean of which any swimmer should beware. Rocks and shells, bite-y creatures, currents, waves and riptides should all be treated with the utmost respect. But those people “surprised by the cold waters” will soon get the message and either never get in past their knees or dive in and come pounding out again, screaming their heads off about how cold it is.

The ponds are another matter entirely. It is prime swim time for Maine lakes and ponds, time for distance swimmers to go for their personal best and the little people to frolic to their hearts’ content.

When it comes to water, Terry Hayes, independent candidate for governor, identifies it as one of Maine’s greatest assets. “It’s clean, it’s clear, it’s cold and everybody needs it,” she said in Bar Harbor last week. Be it for consumption or recreation, the vast stores of water in Maine are a valuable resource and Hayes says we should be good stewards of it.

She’s right, and that protection should extend to the working waterfront as well. Fishermen in Portland are lamenting the continuing encroachment of non-marine uses on what little scraps of waterfront are left to them in Maine’s biggest city. They are not alone.

Maine’s extensive coastline is a draw for tourists, and there is constant pressure to turn working waterfront into an endless ribbon of hotels and restaurants. The lure of tax dollars is hard for communities to resist, and given the choice, who wouldn’t choose a room or a meal with an ocean view? City officials would do well to remember that Maine has some of the last working waterfront in the country, and that itself is a tourist attraction.

Armed with ice cream cones, visitors from away are fascinated by watching fishermen load bait, unload catch, take traps out or bring them ashore. There has been policy at the state level to incentivize protection of working waterfronts, but there is hardly a harbor in Maine that does not feel pressure from competing uses.

There is also concern about warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine that could affect lobster populations. It’s picking up now, but this lobstering season got off to a slow start. Most fishermen believe that the fishery is cyclical, and that the record landings of the past few years were bound to be followed by a slow-down. However, if it is related to environmental factors that slow-down could be the new normal.

Availability of bait, the price of fuel and the potential for new regulations to protect whales are all part of the worrisome background noise against which fishermen ply their trade. On top of all that, lobster is one of the U.S. products caught in the crossfire of an emerging trade war between China and the United States. A retaliatory doubling of the tariff on lobster after the United States imposed new tariffs on China is driving overseas buyers to turn to Canada for their supply.

Those overseas markets were the result of a major effort to expand opportunities for sales, and it is painful for fishermen to see them drying up. The Maine delegation may get it, but most of Congress, the only people who could intervene in this trade disruption, are too busy with the political calculus of their parties’ futures to be of any help.

We are at the end of the federal policy pipeline and the consequences are beginning to make themselves known. How likely is it that our fishermen will be able to make themselves heard over the din (and the money) in D.C.?

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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