Consider the Lobstermen

Maine's coastal communities depend on lobstering to survive. Between trade wars and rising ocean temperatures, their future is uncertain.

A thin band of dense orange separates the ocean from the sky. The smell of cigarette smoke, diesel fuel and salt air mixes with the pungent scent of freshly thawed rockfish heads. The carcasses slosh back and forth in bait bins, in-sync with the movement of the boat on the ocean. The sternman turns to me and asks: “So are you a Democrat or a Republican?”

“Fuck,” I think to myself. “We haven’t even been out an hour and we’re already talking about this? I’ve got at least seven more hours out here.”

It’s approximately 5:45am on Friday, September 11, 2020 and I am on a lobster boat, just off the shore of Stonington, Maine, shooting footage for a film about lobstering. Earlier this week I was recording footage of the Stonington Harbor and noticed more than a couple of Trump 2020 flags on some of the lobster boats.

“Neither.” I reply. “Oh, so you’re an independent? A middle of the road guy.”

“No.” I continue. “I walk on the left side of road, but I hate the DNC.”

“Oh.” The sternman pauses, then exclaims. “We hate the DNC too!”

Lobstering in Maine is a $485 million industry. There are about 4,800 licensed lobstermen, plus their crews, who are responsible for getting the lobsters out of the ocean. It is one of the most regulated commercial fisheries in the nation and a combination of conservation and environmental conditions have produced record landings of lobsters in the last decade. Despite its lucrative appearance it is hazardous work and the men and women who do it are susceptible to swings in lobster prices, weather and recently import/export tariffs and the COVID-19 pandemic. Lobstering is uniquely situated at the intersection of global trade, climate change, the demands of capitalism and the articulation of working-class politics and ideologies. And this is why on a Friday morning I woke up at 4:00 a.m., grabbed the lunch I packed the night before, filled a thermos with coffee, picked up my camera gear and started the drive to Stonington.

“Welcome to Stonington, Maine’s Largest Lobster Port”

Stonington is a small town that comprises the southern portion of Deer Isle, an island just off the coast in Hancock County. The population of Stonington is 1,037 according to the 2018 census and the entire population of the island is 2,952. In the waters surrounding Stonington approximately 945 licensed lobstermen, and their crews, fish. Many of them have been doing it all their lives and learned the trade from their grandfathers or fathers.

In many ways Stonington resembles the dozens of lobster towns that dot the coastline of Maine. Small, tightly knit communities where the majority of residents know each other and are either commercial fisherman or employed in businesses that support the fisheries. For these communities fishing isn’t just the main source of income, it’s also a way of life, one that has always been there. The ocean has provided sustenance from a variety of species including codfish, hake, mussels, clams, scallops and lobsters. And these species have sustained these small coastal communities for decades. It is work that is available to anyone who is willing to work hard, regardless of educational level or experience. However, the close social bonds of these fishing communities exist in tension with the fact that despite being employed in the same industry each commercial fisherman is in direct competition with other.

This tension is mediated by the suppression of any discussions related to money or catch sizes. Within the lobstering community it is considered a major faux pas to ask other fishermen how much money they make or how many lobsters they’ve caught. The quickest way for a sternman to lose their job is to talk, or brag, about how well the boat they work on has been fishing. It isn’t just a matter of inscribed bourgeois values regarding the discussion of money. If word gets out that one lobsterman is hauling in tons of lobsters then other lobstermen will start following them and setting their traps in the same areas. An abundance of traps in the same area increases the chance of rope lines getting tangled. This slows everyone down and can damage traps or lobstermen as they try to disentangle gear. As a result, the prevailing ideology of the towns is to mind your own business. It’s a worldview reinforced by the demands of the market and the legal definitions of commercial fisherman.

How to Catch a Lobster

The crew had just finished pulling up their first string of traps for the day prior to our conversation regarding political parties. The entire process takes about two minutes. After the captain expertly guides the boat close to the buoy he swiftly changes positions from the wheel to lean over the starboard gunwale, snag the trap line with his gaff, pull it aboard and in the same motion loop it through the boats pot hauler to begin pulling the traps to the surface. The entire crew stands by while the rope screams through the hauler. This particular lobster boat is a three-man crew: captain, sternman and third-man.

The captain owns the boat, traps and fishing license. He decides where to set the traps, how many to tie on each string and when to pull them up. He also gets the boat in position to gaff the buoys and keeps the boat steady while the crew sorts through the traps and resets them.

Once the captain has located a buoy, gaffed the trap line and begun hauling it up, the sternman stands at the ready to haul the trap onto the boat’s gunwale, replenish the bait, sort through any lobsters in the trap – tossing any under- or over-sized ones back into the ocean – then return the trap to the ocean on the captain’s command. Any lobsters that may be keepers must be measured with a brass gauge that indicates the legal minimum and maximum size for lobsters in Maine. After the traps have been reset, the sternman must immediately finish measuring and banding the claws of any keepers and start prepping bait while the captain navigates to the next string of traps. Most lobster boats are operated by two-man crews consisting of just a captain and a sternman, but some will have a third-man who is responsible for replacing the bait in the traps and banding the claws of any keepers. This allows the sternman to sort through the traps more efficiently.

The only breaks from this constant flurry of activity, aside from lunch, are the moments spent traveling from one string of traps to the next. It is highly repetitive work and the best sternmen are those who can perform these tasks with minimum need for instruction and have the endurance to haul, empty and reset traps for 7-8 hours without tiring. In exchange for all of this quick and efficient work the sternman is typically paid a percentage of the day’s catch (usually between 10%-20%), either off-the-bottom (after expenses) or off-the-top (before expenses).

Homarus americanus (or the American lobster) can only be caught in a small section of the North Atlantic Ocean roughly between the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the coast of New Jersey. Despite their hard exoskeleton, lobsters are quite fragile creatures. Lobsters can only grow by shedding their exoskeletons and producing a new one. This task is difficult and some lobsters do not survive the process. A young lobster will molt multiple times per year before reaching adulthood. Afterwards they will shed approximately once a year. This annual shedding tends to coincide with the summer months when the water temperatures shift.

As water temperatures in mid-summer warm lobsters migrate closer to the shore to molt. After molting, they begin the slow journey back to deeper waters as the surface temperature of shallower waters cool in the late fall/early winter. It is during this shift from offshore to inshore and back again that Maine’s lobstermen haul in their biggest landings. However, these new shell lobsters, called shedders, aren’t quite as robust as lobsters whose shells have hardened.

Once a lobster has shed its exoskeleton it will fill itself with water in order to increase its body size. Once inflated it must wait for its new exterior to harden. It takes a few days for the new shell to harden enough for them to leave protective shelter and will take weeks for it to completely harden. As a result, shedders are too fragile to survive shipment across the country or internationally. Most shedders are destined for processing facilities, to be broken down and turned into various lobster products. Some may be temporarily spared and sent to lobster pounds, where they will live until their shells harden enough to allow them to survive live transport.

Lobsters remain fragile even after their shells have hardened. They can only survive for about 48 hours outside of water. When a lobster dies it begins to decompose almost immediately releasing bacteria that can be quite harmful if consumed by humans. This bacteria is also harmful to other lobsters, and if a dead lobster is left in a bin or storage tank with live lobsters the bacteria will multiply rapidly, triggering a die-off of the remaining lobsters.

These geographical and biological factors have contributed to the seeming permanence of lobstering industries along the coast of New England. Fixed infrastructure in the form of landing docks, lobster pounds and canneries or processing plants have always been necessary to support the capture, processing and transport of lobsters. And for these reasons many coastal communities actively prepare their children for entry into commercial fishing.

Economics of Lobstering

Commercial lobster fishing licenses in Maine are restricted to individual fishermen and their registered vessels. No large-scale commercial lobstering is permitted and fisherman must apply for permits within specific zones of the Gulf of Maine that they wish to fish. The Maine Legislature has divided the Gulf of Maine into seven zones, each with its own limits regarding number of licenses and traps allowed. Anyone looking to obtain a new commercial lobstering license is often put on a waitlist until enough old licenses are retired, within the zone they intend to fish.

Once secured, a commercial lobster license permits the holder to “fish for, take, possess, ship or transport within the state…and sell lobsters” with a crew. In addition to the license fee the holder must also purchase trap tags at $0.50 each for every trap they intend to fish with. The current trap limit for most zones is 800 traps.

The startup costs for lobstermen are considerable:

  • Boat – A fully equipped boat can cost around $200,000
  • Insurance – Boat and health
  • Boat registration fee
  • Mooring/Docking fees
  • License fee – between $65-$888 depending on the class of license
  • Traps – approx. $60-$150 each (plus $0.50 each for tags)
  • Rope/Buoys
  • Bait
  • Fuel
  • Maintenance costs associated with lost/damaged gear and boat maintenance/repairs, etc.
  • Crew

According to the captain of the boat I was on in September, things were very different in the 1980s. When he applied for a $18,500 business loan, to buy his first boat, the bank wouldn’t approve his application without a cosigner. He had to ask his father-in-law to cosign.

Back then the average lobster landing was 21.35 million pounds each year. Over the last ten years the average annual landing has been 116.97 million pounds. The increase in landings has prompted a dramatic increase in the size of the lobster industry and a corresponding increase in the level of debt taken on by commercial fisherman. A 2008 survey estimates that nearly half of Maine’s lobstermen have outstanding business loans.  And while the cost of lobstering has grown exponentially, the price paid for lobster hasn’t kept pace. The razor thin profit margins for most lobstermen makes them, and their crews, highly susceptible to any sort of disruption.

Still, lobstermen remain confident that lobster stocks are abundant enough and the markets deep enough to sustain the fishery. If you ask a lobsterman what they’re most concerned about, the vast majority will say the threat of new regulations to protect right whales.

Right whales are the most endangered great whale on the planet. An estimated 360 right whales remain. Collisions with large ships and entanglement in commercial fishing gear are contributing to their decline. In order to avoid these entanglements, regulatory bodies are considering a number of options including a 50% reduction in the number of trap lines in the water as well as the seasonal closure of certain fishing grounds where whales are known to migrate. For most lobstermen, these proposals amount to an existential threat to commercial lobstering and they have voiced significant opposition. Their main argument is that no Maine lobsterman has ever seen a right whale. However, this does not necessarily mean that right whales are not encountering their trap lines.

While the potential for new regulatory measures to protect right whales presents significant difficulties for commercial lobstermen, there are other challenges, namely the increase in debt-financing, shifts in global trade and tariffs, and climate change.

A Critique of Lobster Economy

How a lobster gets from the ocean and onto a dinner plate can be summarized as follows:

  1. A lobsterman catches the lobster in a trap and sells it to a wholesaler.
  2. The wholesaler sells and distributes it to a restaurant and/or grocer.
  3. The restaurant or grocer sells it to a consumer.

Each step of this process is accompanied by an increase in the price of the lobster that is assumed to correspond with the business expenses of each vendor and ultimately is beholden to the law of supply and demand. A lower price paid to the lobsterman at the landing dock is meant to signal a decrease in demand and vice versa. This is meant to rationalize how a lobsterman receives $4.05/lb (average price in 2018) while a lobster roll in Brooklyn costs $26. The reality is somewhat more complicated. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey observes in his analysis of Marx’s Capital, the law of supply and demand, while important, cannot explain anything when they are in equilibrium.

Most lobstermen sell their catches to a dealer, who owns the means to store, transport and sell large quantities of live lobster or lobster products, if they own a processing plant, to businesses and consumers. This exchange is performed at a landing dock, owned and operated by the dealer, where the lobstermen can often purchase bait and fuel. The cost of this one-stop convenience is that the owner of the landing dock sets the price per pound for lobster (this cost will fluctuate according to estimated costs/etc.).

If the price is not advantageous for the lobstermen, they are free to sell their catch to another dealer. This, however, will likely involve the expenditure of additional fuel to travel to another location, thereby eliminating any potential gain. Alternatively, lobstermen could sell directly to businesses and consumers, who would be more than happy to pay a fair price for both parties. But considering the vast amount of lobster that must be caught and sold in order to sustain fishing activities this is an unrealistic proposition.

Among other reasons, this is why the vast majority of lobstermen sell their catches to a single dealer. All that concerns the lobstermen is that they get paid a fair price for their catch, pay a fair price for their bait and fuel and are able to head back out the next morning to fish. They are more than happy to leave the logistical headaches and anxieties of securing buyers and distributing lobsters to the dealers. But this cycle is only possible if the lobsterman makes enough to cover their expenses, including paying their crew enough to ensure that they return for work the next day, plus a profit, and continues to profit.

In theory, lobstermen could band together and demand higher prices for their catches in order to ensure financial stability. Such cooperation, however, is prohibited by state and federal antitrust laws. Since each licensed lobsterman is considered an independent businessman, such action would be considered price-fixing, leaving them open to prosecution by state and federal governments. The price of being your own boss quickly runs aground when faced with the legal and geographical restrictions regarding how, where and for how much you can sell your catch, the law of supply and demand and the need for constant growth that underlies capitalism. Most lobstermen, however, have not voiced much concern about this in view of recent booms in lobster landings.

Uncertain Future

One of the primary reasons the Maine lobster industry has proven viable is the scope of regulations fishermen and dealers must follow. Maine has both minimum and maximum size laws, as well as rules governing the keeping of female lobsters. This is necessary to sustain a healthy breeding stock and ensure that lobster populations remain at levels that promote long-term fishing.

Maine implemented a minimum size law in 1895 and passed a maximum size law in 1933. Lobstermen can only keep and sell lobsters whose carapace length is longer than 3 ¼ inches, but not longer than 5 inches. A brass gauge approved by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Office of Sealer of Weights and Measures is used aboard lobster boats to measure each lobster to ensure it is a keeper. Female lobsters that have extruded eggs onto the underside of their tail must be released back into the ocean and given a v-notch on one of their tail flippers, if they don’t already have one. The v-notch is a signal to other lobstermen who may catch the same lobster that she is fertile and must be released in order to allow her to reproduce. The penalties for having under or oversized lobsters or having lobsters with v-notches aboard a lobster boat can be very expensive and may result in the suspension of a fishing license after repeated offenses. The same penalties apply to dealers as well. Marine patrol officers are permitted by law to board fishing vessels and inspect their catch and gear. As a result of these conservation laws, most lobstermen throw back more lobsters than they keep. Because of this, the lobster industry has sustained high levels of landings while other fisheries such as cod have been over-fished to the point of near extinction. The combination of these conservation laws and the work that lobstermen perform in order to preserve the species leads them to regard themselves as stewards of the sea, a self-conception that prompts incredulity when lobstermen are accused of environmental destruction.

Climate scientists have concluded that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. Not coincidentally, lobster landings are increasing as well because current ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are optimal for lobster reproduction. Another contributing factor has been the near elimination from the Gulf of Maine of cod, a natural lobster predator, due to over-fishing. This combination of optimal temperatures and drastically reduced deaths due to predation have resulted in historical landings of lobster over the last decade. In 2016 reported landings of Maine lobster peaked at over 132 million pounds, valued at more than $540 million. Previous record landings were set in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

While rising ocean temperatures have produced several record landings over the last decade, scientists have cautioned that if temperatures continue to rise at the same rate it could be detrimental to future lobster populations. They point to a reduction in observed juvenile lobsters as evidence of a pending decline. Current ocean temperatures have proved highly favorable to lobsters, but studies show that increased temperatures (19 degrees Celsius compared to a current average ocean temperature of 16 degrees) results in significantly lower survival rates of lobster larvae. It takes a lobster an average of 7 years to mature to legal size. This lag time between infancy and adulthood, in addition to the numerous environmental factors that influence lobster survival rates, means that any noticeable effects of scientists’ predictions may not be seen for several years. However, lobster landings in Maine have declined slightly since peaking in 2016.

While the surge in lobster landings has prompted the rapid growth of Maine lobstering, these record landings have not always meant more money for lobstermen. When landings increased from 104 million pounds to 127 million pounds in 2012, dealers were taken by surprise and the price per pound paid to lobstermen plummeted to an average of $2.69. This was the lowest price paid for lobster since 1994.

The industry had been caught by a sudden increase in supply that exceeded demand. In their search for new markets to sell this surplus, lobster dealers found a willing consumer in China’s growing middle class. In 2009, US exports of lobster and lobster products to China totaled $2.1 million, by 2014 it increased to $90.5 million.

However, Trump’s trade war with China brought this diversification to a grinding halt.  In 2018, in retaliation for tariffs on imports of goods from China, China imposed an additional 25% tariff on US exported seafood. Exports of live lobster and lobster products from the US to China virtually disappeared overnight and the business shifted to Canada.

Lobstermen prepared for a huge drop in the price of lobsters, but the crisis didn’t arrive. Instead of a drop in prices, lobstermen saw prices remain stable and even grow. The crisis was displaced by dealers that shifted their business from China to Canada, where dealers were in desperate need of lobsters to meet the increasing number of Chinese orders.

Trump’s steel tariffs pose a second challenge. As it became more expensive for suppliers to purchase the steel mesh used to make lobster traps, lobstermen once again prepared to take a financial hit. So far, however, suppliers have managed to absorb these additional costs.

The displacement of these two crises insulated the lobstermen from any dire effects, for now at least. As a result, they were largely approving of Trump’s trade policies. Many are also convinced that President Biden will soon regulate them out of existence. But there is another worst-case scenario for the lobstermen. If ocean temperatures keep rising and lobsters continue to migrate north, lobster landings will begin to decline along the coast of Maine. This has already started happening in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and the Long Island Sound. Without large lobster landings, dealers won’t be able to insulate fishermen from the effects of reorganized trade relations and lobstermen will struggle to pay their crews, expenses and loans. In an industry where roughly 80% of lobstermen have only a high school diploma or G.E.D. there will be very few work alternatives for them along the coast, and the fishing villages that depend on them will decline and possibly disappear.