CHRIS WELCH has been experimenting for months. Restrictive fishing quotas designed to protect herring, the preferred bait for lobster, have pushed him and other Maine lobstermen to various expediencies—less herring, different bait, different bait bags. Nothing is working well so far. Some lobstermen are stockpiling herring, expecting prices to rise during the summer.
Last year Maine’s 4,500 lobstermen hauled in 54,000 tonnes of the critters, one of the highest landings in the state’s history. So important is it to Maine’s economy and self-image that the state offers a licence plate depicting the crustacean. Demand remains strong, says John Sackton, an analyst and publisher of Seafood News. Lobster is not just for posh restaurants and New England lobster shacks any more. McDonald’s, a fast-food chain, offers lobster rolls. But this season has been stormy.
The bait shortage is only one problem. In 2017 the European Union lifted the 8% tariff on Canadian lobster while keeping it for the American kind. Last year China imposed 25% tariffs on American goods including lobster. “We lost 80% of our business in mainline China and saw 50% of EU sales erode,” says Tom Adams of Maine Coast, one of the largest live-lobster shippers.
Maine’s lobstermen will soon have to rethink how they catch lobsters. For more than 200 years they have used baited traps, also known as pots, to snare lobsters crawling on the ocean floor. Lines connect the traps to buoys on the water surface. Scientists say that these lines have trapped and killed some North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species. Maine must cut the number of lines by 50% to adhere to new federal regulations designed to save the whales.
How this will be achieved has yet to be determined. One possibility is to insist that many traps are attached to a single line to the surface—something that is easier for big boats to handle. Ropeless options are expensive and time-consuming. A collapsible buoy that could inflate itself using compressed air might work better. Lobstermen have a history of conservation and self-regulation—in 1872 they stopped catching egg-bearing females. Kristan Porter, a lobsterman, is sympathetic to the plight of the right whales, of which there are only 400, “but I’ve never even seen one.”
Patrice McCarron, founder of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, an advocacy group, has not witnessed such a tumultuous year in her 20 years in the industry. As for Mr Welch, whose grandfather was a lobsterman and who has been fishing since he was 14, he is not sure that the industry as he knows it will exist for his son. That is often the fisherman’s lament.