Maine’s red lobster industry is turning the blue economy green

Chris Tobey digs through a bin of lobster
Chris Tobey sells fresh lobster off his dock in Kittery, ME. PHOTO: Haley Hersey
Chris Tobey digs through a bin of lobster
Chris Tobey sells fresh lobster off his dock in Kittery, Maine. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

By Haley Hersey

When thinking of Maine’s economy, the state’s lobster industry might come to mind. But increased regulations to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, rising fuel and bait prices and other factors are challenging the sustainability of the industry.

American lobster generated a record-high landing value, over $907 million in 2021, despite the various threats to the industry, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) data. Preliminary data from the department shows the value of lobster landings – lobster fished and sold for profit – in 2022 is roughly $574 million, which is more consistent with previous years.

A chart of pounds of lobster landings per year since 1964.
SOURCE: Maine Department of Marine Resources GRAPH: Haley Hersey

However, the right whale debate has definitely impacted the state’s economy, said Maine State Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli. “The right whale is not wholly responsible for some of the declines in the lobster industry, but it’s certainly caused an atmosphere of uncertainty, of tension,” she said. “The Maine lobster is iconic, probably even more so than the Maine blueberry.”

Although right whale preservation has turned into a hot-button issue of late, it hasn’t necessarily affected Maine’s reputation, Vitelli said. Instead, it has reinforced a sense of community and who Mainers are. “I think what I’ve seen come out of this is an affirmation of Mainer’s hard work, our willingness to just dig in and figure out what the problems are and keep going,” she said. 

“We’re hardworking, tough people, and we’ll come together and figure this out,” she added. “The lobstering community is working to overcome this.”

Vitelli presented L.D. 1552: An Act to Create the Lobster Innovation Fund, a bill to help defend and preserve Maine’s lobster industry. The legislation was approved in the Maine Senate and the House, but in mid-June was placed on the Special Appropriations Table because it requires funding. The lobster innovation fund would pay lobstermen stipends for participating in trials for the new technology being proposed by scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“I wanted to be doing something that would help stave off potential collapse of this really critical industry,” she said. “It’s an industry that has felt like it’s been under attack for a long time from a number of different directions.”

Implementing policy based in science
The fight between the lobster industry and the federal government has been about the research that drives policies, Vitelli said. The issue is whether right whales become entangled in lobster traps and die. NOAA says that’s the case, and lobstermen say that it’s not.

“The data that the federal agencies have been using to put restrictions on the Maine lobster industry are not necessarily based in the best science. And that’s really important,” Vitelli said.

Finding a way to preserve the lobster industry in Maine and protect right whales is an ongoing effort. Lobstermen are having increased legislation imposed on the profession and they have to adapt accordingly. Vitelli would like to see lobstermen have more involvement in the process. Fishermen have to react quickly and adapt to unexpected situations while at sea, making them innovative.

“Maine lobstermen are problem solvers. They know how to fix things,” Vitelli said. “So it really would make sense to make sure that they were part of that process.” 

Equipping scientists with the right tools to conduct the science that will get the data needed to really understand what’s happening to right whales off the coast of Maine and beyond is important, she said. 

“Let’s make sure when you’re putting policies in place that have devastating potential and actual devastating impacts on our industry, that it’s based on real science,” she said.

A stack of lobster trap with other fishing gear nearby.
Lobstering has become the subject of debate as NOAA says endangered right whales become entangled in the fishing rope used with lobster traps. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

“It’s not normal to have bipartisan support for an entire industry, that’s something that’s very Maine specific,” said Amber-Jean Nickel, chief operating officer for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). “But it’s also very telling at just how special and iconic the industry is. It’s tradition. It’s heritage.”

“I think it’s also really important to just help people understand that just because they’re not a fisherman, they are connected to the fishing industry,” Nickel said. “Like we’re all connected in that economic way.”

Waiting for a commercial license
A license is needed to be able to harvest lobster in the state of Maine, and the number of licenses issued is limited. The state issued 5,643 commercial licenses in 2022, according to DMR data. That number is down from the 5,763 commercial licenses in 2021. The waiting period for a license is currently around five to 10 years, said Ryan Sirois, who is finishing an apprenticeship under a licensed lobster fisherman.

Sirois, who fishes out of Kittery and York, could be waiting as long as 10 years for his own license to harvest lobster commercially. He needs a boat once he has a license, which could cost $300,000. He worries about banks approving loans for those sorts of things when the industry is in an uncertain state.

Running an independent business and boat operation means there is no 401k for the often dangerous work of a lobsterman, Sirois said. “At least I do what I love,” he said. The 32-year-old makes around $30,000 in a bad year and can make between $80,000 and $100,000 in a good year, he said.

A chart of pounds of lobster landings vs. value per year since 1964
SOURCE: Maine Department of Marine Resources GRAPH: Haley Hersey

“This is an industry that engages families throughout the whole age spectrum. And I think that’s why it’s so important to all of us,” Vitelli said.

Marine biologist and lobsterman Curt Brown fishes about 500 traps off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. “I started lobstering when I was about 8 years old,” Brown said. Lobstering and fishing are traditional markets, he said. 

Commercial lobstermen fished 2.8 million traps in 2022, based on preliminary data from the DMR. “It’s all independent owner-operators, and that in my mind really helps the sustainability of the industry,” Brown said.

Preserving an industry for future generations
The MLA put conservation measures in place to keep the oceans safe for right whales and allow the lobster fishery to operate, said Patrice McCarron, policy director for the MLA. Part of these efforts include collaborating with Maine lobstermen on developing innovative gear solutions that protect both the field and right whales.

“It is my great hope that the lobster industry will continue to thrive, and future generations of Mainers will continue to have the opportunity to be a part of Maine’s lobstering heritage,” she said.

NOAA’s new gear regulations – which include adding several breakaways on ropes and painting the ropes based on what part of the ocean they’re in – coupled with increased fuel and bait prices makes business tougher, said Chris Tobey, a fourth-generation lobster fisherman based in Kittery. He started in the industry as a kid and worked his way up to captaining his own boat. “It just gets harder and harder each year to stay in business,” he said.

Chris Tobey in the doorway of his lobstering boat.
Chris Tobey docks his boat after going for a ride in Kittery. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

Every day as a lobster fisherman is different because the industry is dealing with dealer-controlled prices, which complicates running a commercial operation, Tobey said. Bigger corporations are coming in and buying out smaller dealers. He inherited the family trade from his father, who died in 2008 in an accident at sea. 

Tobey said lobster fishing was his calling. He has his own children, but doesn’t know if they will take over the operation some day with the uncertainty that lies ahead. “Why would I want that for them?” Tobey said.

All they used to have to do was get ropes and traps, he said, but now having to add weak links, painting ropes and including additional paint if they’re fishing in federal waters, adds to the cost of running a fishing operation.

“The whole thing makes me sick. I have two kids, pretty much a wife, I’ve put my whole life into this,” Tobey said. “Nothing’s going to support the business you’ve built.”

About Haley Hersey 4 Articles
Haley Hersey was born and raised in central Maine. She got her master’s degree in journalism from Emerson College and her bachelor’s degree in media studies from the University of Southern Maine. She has two tuxedo cats she adores and enjoys baking and cooking in her free time.