A Complicated Battle in the Gulf of Maine Threatens to Take Lobster Off the Menu
It was two hours before dawn in the village of Friendship, but for a Maine lobster crew, it was already getting late. Captain Dustin Delano, his sternman, Chris, and his bait guy, Tim, moved in coordinated loops around the deck of the Knotty Lady, stacking traps, thawing redfish heads and coiling lines to the gentle bass notes of engines rumbling below decks. In its own way, it had the feel of a chamber orchestra tuning up. Last cigarettes were lit, smoked and flicked away. And with that, we were off to the grounds.
In May 2021, the National Marine Fisheries Service, having conducted an Endangered Species Act review of the Northeast lobster fishery, issued a Biological Opinion that determined that entanglement risk would have to be reduced by 98% by 2030. Climate change had shifted the mammals' migration patterns, and these lobster grounds were identified as a North Atlantic right whale "hot spot." Maine lobstermen and the maze of buoy ropes they require to mark their traps risked ensnaring some of the last 350 of these animals left on Earth.
Yet some in the business—like Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative— believe that right whales have already moved away from this area ("they're rarely sighted here now," she says) and that it's difficult to assess whether closing a large portion of Maine's lobster grounds would truly result in 98% fewer right whale entanglements.
But the impact for Dustin Delano and the crew of the Knotty Lady is crystal clear. "We won't survive a 98% reduction," Delano told me as he caught sight of the first "high flyer," the 10-foot-high buoy that marks the endpoint of his first line of traps.
An Economy in Jeopardy
When you sit down to write fisheries conservation stories, as I've been doing now for the better part of two decades, the trick is to listen for a signal from the ocean that you can hear over the drone of complaint that is endemic to fishing communities. Push-and-pull is inevitable when trying to manage a wild food source, but sometimes the sea lets you know what's needed. When American populations of the magnificent North Atlantic swordfish plummeted to their lowest levels in the '80s and '90s the signal was that, of course, a better fishery management plan was needed, including enforcing size limits and catch methods. Similarly, when New England haddock stocks nosedived, the answer, of course, was to stop factory trawlers from dragging Georges Bank where a core population had a chance of regrouping. Both measures have worked spectacularly. Now big swords swim the Gulf Stream from Florida to Nova Scotia and haddock populations have rebounded to above target levels.
But the Maine lobster paradox defies the usual paradigm of environmentalists versus fishermen because, over the course of two highly fraught centuries, Maine lobstermen have had to become environmentalists of a sort to stay in business. In the early 1800s, Boston and New York traders began using vessels called "smacks" that allowed seawater to refresh a tank below decks—so seafood could be kept alive during transport, as lobsters must be. And it seemed like lobsters would dwindle in Lorax-like fashion until the coast would be picked clean of every single crustacean. Impoverished Maine communities rushed at the opportunity to make cash money from the smacks, selling lobsters of any size to the big-city traders who hopped from town to town brokering deals. Soon millions of lobsters were being whisked away every year.
I saw the result of all that bounty in action as traps came up over the side of the Knotty Lady in rapid succession, the vessel barely slowing as the catch was hauled and parsed. So ingrained was the size limit for the trap man, Chris, that an under- or oversized lobster was instantly flicked back alive into the sea without a second look. No lover of lobster cuisine himself, Chris seemed almost glad to let them go: "I eat maybe one or two of these things a year. I touch them all day, yuck." Soon, the little lobsterman chamber orchestra hit its rhythmic stride. Trap up, small lobster out, big lobster out, right-sized over to Tim who bound its claws with a bander and whisked it down a hole to a live well. Then redfish head, redfish head, speared through the eyes, down the bait needle, followed by two folded bunker fish, also down the needle to an attached rope fixed inside the "kitchen" of the trap. Door close, door close, buoy line zipping out, rope drawing tight, a little lift to launch the trap back out over the gunwale and down to the ocean floor. From haul to reset, the whole thing took 15 seconds.
As the Knotty Lady worked her line, a half-dozen other lobstermen chamber orchestras performed the same theme with variations of vessel size around us. But all of them, unlike industrial fleets in other fisheries, were owner-operated. Maine's unique compromise with the sea forbids absentee ownership of a lobster boat. This has created a diverse flotilla comprised of 3,670 captains and 5,570 crew members. Also unlike other fisheries, where the average age of fishermen just gets older and older, the state issues 1,095 student licenses annually—the equivalent of a lobstering learner's permit—allowing young people to gradually work their way into the fishery rather than cough up an insurmountable upfront cost. Over time, many of these student lobstermen ascend to captainship, a career well worth pursuing. In all, the Maine lobster boats bring in $500 million a year in gross sales. When you count up the money lobsters earn for Maine processors, boat yards, restaurants and other associated businesses you hit a $2 billion valuation—about 5% of the state's gross domestic product. In the context of the state's coastal economy, the crustacean looms even larger. Sure, there are other fish in Maine's seas, but 79% of its fishing income comes from lobsters.
That this various, vigorous fleet is able to exist in tight quarters is allowed by the unique nature of the fishery, with each crew separating out its traps from competitors using specific-colored buoys and carefully set lines. It's exactly this system that the coming whale regulations threaten. As part of the 98% risk reduction plan, lobstermen are being pushed to shift to "ropeless" gear, a still-experimental technology that could obligate all Maine lobster captains fishing in federal waters to have a pricy geolocator and another expensive homing gizmo attached to every gang of traps, which can number in the dozens. Looking out over the sea of buoys spread out behind Monhegan Island, I asked Captain Delano how all this was going to work.
"I don't know," he answered curtly. "Do you?"
A Whale of a Problem
Stormy Mayo, Ph.D., is also not clear how a new ropeless Maine lobster industry would work. But as a cetacean scientist responsible for an annual right whale census out of Provincetown, Massachusetts, he also knows from 30 years of flying in tiny planes and IDing whales from the air that we cannot afford to lose another animal. The North Atlantic right was nearly wiped out by whalers in the 1700s and remained at low levels for the next 250 years. Then, in the 1990s, a modest recovery seemed to be starting and numbers reached a modern-day high of 500. But the good news didn't last. In 2010, the population started to drop, down to an estimated 336 in 2020. "When we follow the projections," Mayo told me, "We see a downward trajectory that will end at zero." By some estimates, zero could be 20 years from now.
Mayo and his team have done it all with regards to right whales. They have come to memorize each animal's "callosity pattern," roughened skin patches that sprout on a right's snout. Using these spots, census takers can tell a whale named Cassiopeia from another called Infinity. They also can tell which ones are in trouble. "Right now, we know that a female whale named Snow Cone is entangled," Mayo said.
Given that we can find entangled whales, it seems that all we'd have to do is disentangle them. But Mayo quickly debunks that idea. "Imagine trying to take a feather off the back of a charging bull," he said, with a chill in his voice as he remembered a brush or two with death he'd had while disentangling whales. "We find them on the surface but when they dive, they go down for 20 minutes. You have to get the knives in the right place. It's not an easy task." In 2017, a highly experienced fisherman and diver named Joe Howlett was killed when he was struck by a right whale's tail while working to free it in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Although a few whales can be freed of rope, many entanglements, once they happen, can't really be fixed. And yet, looking to fix the problem by curtailing Maine lobstering isn't necessarily supported by the data. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, noted the state's lobstermen long ago added breakaways to their gear so that the ropes would separate in the event of an entanglement and that nowadays the ropes pulled off of right whales are generally of much larger gauge than those used by Mainers. Mayo himself acknowledges that the entangling gear is generally "of unknown origin." Moreover, around half of the whales that are killed annually don't die as a result of fishing. Last year, a calf was found dead along the Florida coast bearing injuries of a vessel strike. The mother was sighted a few days later bearing new injuries as well as scars from previous collisions. Maine lobstermen further point to NMFS data that shows not a single whale has ever been killed as a result of entanglement in Maine lobster gear, and there have been no documented right whale entanglements in Maine lobster gear for 18 years.
But yet again, Mayo points out that right whales are now so few in number that the population cannot afford even a single lost whale. Scientists have calculated that, for the population to be stable, human- caused right whale deaths must average less than one per year. "We haven't been below one in 20 years," he lamented. With such a narrow margin for error, theoretically speaking, not even potential risk can be tolerated. "If there are 100 whales in an area with one lobster pot," Mayo explained, "or one whale in an area with 100 pots—the risk is the same."
For lobstermen, though, there is nothing theoretical about the risk to their livelihood. Indeed, right whale closures have already severely impacted fishermen in Massachusetts. Legal mandates necessitated by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prompted a series of actions that eventually resulted in the 2014 closure of an even larger area than is proposed for Maine: over 3,000 square miles.
In an effort to try to figure out if whales and the fishermen could coexist, a group of Massachusetts lobstermen began testing ropeless fishing following the closures in collaboration with the nonprofit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Fisheries, fishing gear manufacturers and other stakeholder organizations. One of them is Rob Martin, a 47-year veteran of the Massachusetts fishery who had been shut out of his winter grounds. "Before, I didn't want to even look at this new stuff," Martin told me over Zoom. But gradually he's seen that it might be workable. "There are pros and cons," he said. According to Martin, problems range from a faulty geolocation system to traps flipping over and losing their beacon to potential safety hazards. On the other hand, he can actually keep an eye on his gear without leaving his desk. Captain Dustin Delano had raised concerns with me about overlapping gear and the risk of revealing the position of his traps via a hackable signal beacon, but Henry Milliken from Woods Hole, who was also on the Zoom, pointed out that most of the systems are designed so that each fisherman will have an encoded system release that can only be triggered by the specific skipper or law enforcement.
"Eventually you've got to do the change," Martin said. "Years ago, we fished with wooden traps. Everyone thought metal traps were crazy. Back in the day, we called a fiberglass boat a Clorox bottle. Now that's all standard stuff. It's just progression. It's the future."
Enter Green Energy
In fish fights, opposing sides tend to line up in predictable ways. Environmental organizations have taken a decidedly pro-whale position, while the lobstermen maintain their right to fish. The Maine story, though, shows points of collaboration. Currently, a coalition of nonprofits is trying to raise money to help lobstermen pay for what could amount to a five-figure hit per boat should they be obligated to switch to ropeless gear. But if the nonprofits, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Maine lobstermen are strange bedfellows, at least they're accustomed to working with one another. This is not the case with a conflict on the horizon that makes their right whale problem feel like a quaint disagreement. In November 2020, Maine Governor Janet Mills announced the state would back the experimental development of the first floating offshore wind farm in the U.S. Currently, Maine uses more fossil fuels for energy than any other New England state. After assessing its strong and constant breezes, though, engineers determined that Maine could produce more than enough power to rid its grid of gas and oil by the middle of the century (a declared goal of state planners).
Where and how Maine would site farms to exploit this potential is an open question. Other states, meanwhile, are rushing ahead. In October 2021, the Biden administration announced plans to develop wind farms along nearly the entirety of the U.S. coastline, and leases in the hundreds of thousands of acres have already been issued in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and several other states. Potential income from offshore lease sales will dwarf any income from fisheries. The International Energy Agency has predicted that global offshore wind will be a trillion-dollar business by 2040. In the U.S. it's projected to be a $25 billion industry by 2030.
I got a glimpse of the shape of things to come when I went fishing recently for black sea bass with author, ecologist and MacArthur fellow Carl Safina a few miles from the Deepwater wind farm that lies just south of Block Island. To date, this array of fixed turbines is the only offshore wind farm in the U.S. (by contrast, Maine's would be the first floating farm). The Block Island array looked innocuous enough, its five windmills turning slowly in a moderate breeze. On his sonar, Safina located a rocky bit of bottom for us to fish. Wind entrepreneurs have promised that the "structure" wind turbines add to the marine environment could mean even more catch for fishermen, since any physical object, natural or artificial, tends to draw in reef-loving fish. Theoretically, it might be possible to troll around the turbines and reap the rewards.
I've known Safina for years and am a writer-in-residence with the Safina Center. Our many conversations about fossil fuels, combined with the fact that he had written A Sea in Flames, a scathing book about the BP Gulf oil disaster, made me think he would be firmly pro offshore wind. But when I asked him if he supported the planned expansion of Deepwater Wind's project, he shook his head bitterly. "It used to be the wide horizon and the wild ocean," he told me. "Now it's becoming another industrial site. The windmills are visible from 20 miles down the beach.
Aside from these immediate, acute disruptions, there are very real fears about what wind development on the scale proposed could do to oceanographic conditions long-term. Daphne Munroe, Ph.D., a clam researcher on a wind farm task force at Rutgers University, has particular concerns about an area of frigid deep water off the mid-Atlantic Coast, known as the Cold Pool. During hot summer months, fish use this area as a thermal refuge. But because wind farms remove energy from the ocean-level atmosphere, they could potentially disrupt the stratification of temperature layers in the seas around them, perhaps even causing the Cold Pool to disintegrate, rendering masses of commercial species vulnerable to summer heat spikes. Yes, this is all a bit theoretical, but Munroe points out that the underlying research on the potential effects of wind farms is "most definitely data poor." There's not even really good evidence of the potential impacts of increased shipping traffic to bring in materials or underwater construction noise on Maine's North Atlantic right whales that everyone is so concerned about.
These issues are also troubling Maine lobstermen, sparking 400 of them to stage a protest in Augusta, the state capital, in April 2021, and are clearly echoed by Governor Mills, who recently banned wind development inside 3 miles from shore—the most productive area for lobstering. Still, the state is moving forward, launching an initiative to ease carefully into the wind business, testing an array of 10 to 12 floating turbines 30 miles off Portland's coast and then studying the effect. "Fishermen have largely been run over by the federal leasing process," Diamond Offshore Wind CEO Chris Wissemann told me. He grew up on Long Island and summered in Maine and was deeply influenced by the die-off of lobsters, scallops and mussels due to climate change that he had witnessed in his own backyard since he was a child. And he claims to want to come up with a wind solution that will take fishermen's concerns to heart. "At most, it's a small percentage of the Gulf of Maine that would be necessary to satisfy the state goals to get to net zero. The idea is that a few percent set aside to really mitigate the impact on the other 96% seems like a pretty good trade. And the research array is the first stake in the sand to make sure when it does go to scale it's done responsibly."
This kind of reasoning doesn't necessarily hold water with Maine fishermen. "It does feel like the world is knocking itself out to make lobstering difficult," Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen's Association lamented. "It's hard to have a conservation community say no to lobster ropes in the water and have those same groups endorse wind farms."
A Murky Future
Lobstering in Maine generally comes to its close around mid-day. On the particular autumn afternoon I visited, the high sun brought with it 80-degree weather. With the day's work done, the Knotty Lady's sternman Chris rolled off his hoodie revealing a T-shirt that said, "Friday is my Second Favorite 'F' Word," and everyone basked in the warmth of the July-like afternoon. The autumn heat was a reminder that the Gulf of Maine is getting hot, fast—warming 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit per year over the last 15 years, seven times the global average, according to NASA. Already, the normally mid-Atlantic- dwelling black sea bass, the same fish I caught hundreds of miles to the south off the Block Island wind farm, are starting to turn up in Maine lobster traps. Just as Long Island Sound lost its lobsters in the 1990s from heat-driven die-offs and northward migrations, Maine's keystone crustacean could very well pack up and head north to Atlantic Canada.
But for Dustin, Tim and Chris, it's unlikely they'll see a direct effect from green energy initiatives soon enough to reverse the trend. Rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine may already be inexorable. And as the crew turned the Knotty Lady back to port, past the other lobstermen pulling the ropes whale conservationists hate, they asked out loud why other communities weren't stepping up to bear some of the burden of green energy development. This crew of hardworking fishermen were most definitely not climate change deniers. They could feel the shift in temperature in the only air and water they've ever known, and they shook their heads at it all as they coiled rope and stacked traps and stored the leftover bait for tomorrow's trip.
"That's always the way people try to solve their problems," Captain Delano said when we bid goodbye at the dock in Friendship. "Put it out at sea, where nobody else but us can see it."
Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, and host of the podcast "Fish Talk."
Evan Mallet is the chef and co-owner of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.