Third-generation lobsterman Nick Prior was in eighth grade when he started working as a sternman on Aquarius, the lobster boat his grandfather built. They still fish together out of Bremen in midcoast Maine. But now, Nick, who is in his last year of high school, is at the helm while Verge Prior, age 77, stuffs the bait bags and bands the claws of their catch. Between hauling traps, Verge quips that he plans to catch lobster until the end of his life. "Some days I feel it's going to be tomorrow, other days it seems longer."
His grandson wants to carry on the family tradition but thinks the future of lobstering is too uncertain to plan his life around. "There's no place I'd rather be during summers, fall and spring" than on a lobster boat, 17-year-old Prior says. But he's also interested in history and hopes to play baseball in college. "Long term I just don't see [lobstering] sustaining me, you know, to have the things I want and need in life."
Prior is one of just over a thousand Maine lobstermen who fish with student licenses while they're in high school or college and working toward a commercial license. State data show their numbers are down about 10% from a peak four years ago, after rising for almost a decade. "There's a lot of kids I know that go now that will not be doing it in even two, three years," Prior says.
Maine does not track how many lobstermen of any age are diversifying into other fisheries or the fast-growing field of aquaculture, even as those in the next generation face unprecedented uncertainty from forces within and outside the fishery. For one, the cost and effort of complying with evolving regulations aimed at protecting the lobster population and other species.
A new rule to protect whales means more costs for lobstermen
The latest federal rule, announced on Aug. 31 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is part of a plan to stop endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting caught in fishing gear by 2030.
The agency estimates that the population's decline has accelerated in recent years, with 368 right whales remaining. NOAA has documented 34 right whale deaths since 2017, with at least nine of those mortalities confirmed to have been caused by entanglements in fishing gear, including gear used by commercial gillnet or lobster and crab fisheries on the East Coast.
NOAA's new rule requires lobstermen to use gear with state-specific markings that can be traced if a whale gets caught, among other modifications such as weak points in fishing lines that allow entangled whales to break free. The rule will also allow lobstermen to use so-called ropeless gear — a costly and controversial new technology that's still in the early stages of development — in fishing areas that will be closed in certain seasons.
"The beauty of the lobster industry is that there's been a place for everybody," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "We're at risk of putting too many barriers in that are really going to create winners and losers, so it's scary."
McCarron says fishermen want to do their part to protect whales, but she says no Maine lobster gear has ever been confirmed to have caused the serious injury or death of a right whale. A NOAA spokesperson counters that its scientists are unable to determine the source of most entanglements and nearly half of mortalities go unobserved.
Lobstermen are being encouraged to go "ropeless"
On a boat near Kennebunkport, Maine, in late July, lobsterman Chris Welch demonstrated new ropeless gear made by a Massachusetts company. It costs about $4,000 per trap, several times more than a traditional lobster trap, which is usually $80-180. Instead of vertical fishing line that hangs between a buoy on the surface and a lobster trap below, it stores rope on the ocean floor that's deployed on demand using GPS and acoustic signals.
"So far it is retrievable," Welch says. "But the challenge of the Maine fishery is there's 5,000 lobstermen and we all fish amongst each other and attempt not to fish on top of each other. With these units unless you're staring at your electronics all day or your iPad, there's no way of knowing where the next guy is."
The 33-year-old is against going ropeless and thinks the gear is a long way from being practical or affordable for most lobstermen. "I foresee it becoming a big boat fishery," he says. "I think it's going to be challenging for new or younger guys or youth even to get into the industry because you're going to have to have such major money for start-up costs."
Federal fisheries managers hope more lobstermen will try ropeless gear and help improve it, with provisions in the new rule designed to accelerate research and development. "They have a really successful way of fishing and we are challenging that with something that is unknown — they call it Star Wars technology," says biologist Colleen Coogan, who leads a NOAA team charged with reducing whale entanglements. "So far the measures they've had to do [have] not put them out of business. And from our assessment of these measures, it's not going to put them out of business either, as long as the lobster stock remains strong as well."
There's more than enough lobster now, but not forever
The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has spiked since the late 1980s, according to stock assessments by interstate regulators. The amount of lobster caught and sold in Maine per year has also been on an overall upward trend since then, reaching 132 million pounds in 2016 before falling in the last few years to 96 million in 2020, according to the state's Department of Marine Resources.
However, research shows the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world's oceans and its lobster population will eventually decline.
"Where we are is probably not a natural or perpetual state of things," says Carla Guenther, chief scientist for the nonprofit Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. Guenther points to other still-emerging changes facing the industry, such as a floating offshore wind farm proposed for key fishing grounds, which she sees as a more imminent threat to the industry's viability. "Outside the abundance of lobster we have created a whole socioeconomic dependence, even a political framework, around the existence of lobster and how much it means and how much it brings to these communities," she says.
Guenther is part of a research team at the University of Maine that's working to measure resilience in the fishery and the communities that depend on it. One study from a Maine nonprofit found that Maine's lobster industry contributes $1 billion to the state's economy each year and supports some 6,000 jobs on the water and 4,000 on land. Research on the industry's vulnerability to change is scarce, particularly of young lobstermen as they reckon with changes that could put their future at odds with centuries of tradition.
Maine lobstermen are disproportionately older and male
About two-thirds of the more than 4,500 Maine lobstermen with commercial licenses are age 40 or older — an imbalance many call a "graying of the fleet" — and only a small fraction are women, including Meredith Oliver, who is 28 and fishes out of Stonington. Oliver was just 15 years old when she inherited her 36-foot lobster boat from her late grandfather after telling him she wanted to fish for life.
"It's something that I've always wanted to do — I just feel so at home on the water," Oliver says, adding that she has not diversified her skills and does not have another source of income besides a winter job cutting wood. Oliver's business plan is to keep herself debt-free and keep fishing, even if the way she catches lobster has to change. "I leave it in the Lord's hands, he's got my back."
The choice of whether or not to keep fishing is new for some Maine lobstermen. Many say it's getting harder to make. But they've worked for generations to protect the species, and regulators agree that there's still more than enough lobster to catch — for now.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Maine's lobster fishery has one of the most abundant and valuable wild seafood stocks in U.S. waters. But those waters are fast warming due to climate change. And with new regulations this week to protect endangered right whales, change is coming for Maine lobstermen and women, especially the next generation.
Shannon Mullen reports.
SHANNON MULLEN, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Nick Prior started working the stern on his grandfather's lobster boat when he was in eighth grade.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR RUMBLING)
VERGE PRIOR: What do you see in there?
NICK PRIOR: A whole lot of nothing.
MULLEN: They still fish together out of Bremen. But now the younger Prior is at the helm, and Verge, who's a spry 77, fills the bait bags.
How long are you going to keep doing this?
V PRIOR: 'Til I die. Some days I feel it's going to be tomorrow. Other days, it seems longer (laughter).
MULLEN: But his grandson hopes to play baseball in college and says carrying on the family tradition is a fallback.
N PRIOR: There's no place I'd rather be during the summers and the fall and spring. But long-term, I just don't see it sustaining me, you know, to have the things I want and need in life.
MULLEN: Nick Prior is one of just over 1,000 Maine lobstermen who fish with student licenses while they're in high school or college working toward a commercial license. State data show their number is down 10% from a peak four years ago after rising for almost a decade. Maine does not track how many are diversifying into other fisheries or the fast-growing field of aquaculture.
N PRIOR: Lobstering is always going to have a special place in my heart. But I know for a fact that there's a lot of kids that I know that go now that will not be doing it in even two, three years.
PATRICE MCCARRON: The beauty of the lobster industry is that there has been a place for everybody.
MULLEN: Patrice McCarron heads the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
MCCARRON: And we're at risk of putting too many barriers in that are really going to create winners and losers. So it's scary.
MULLEN: Including the uncertainty and cost of compliance with evolving federal rules aimed at stopping endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting caught in fishing gear. McCarron says Maine lobstermen want to do their part, but their gear has never been the confirmed cause of a serious right whale injury or death. Regulators add they can't confirm the source of most entanglements. Their new rule requires gear markings and other modifications, but also allows lobstermen to use so-called ropeless gear in fishing areas that will be closed in certain seasons. 33-year-old Chris Welch is one of the first in Maine to test the high-tech new traps.
CHRIS WELCH: Yeah, so right now we're headed out of the Kennebunk River on the fishing vessel Foolish Pride.
MULLEN: Welch started lobstering at age six and exudes his decades of experience, even when he's hunched over an iPad at the helm. Instead of looking for a colored buoy on the water, he's using an app to signal a $4,000 trap somewhere on the ocean floor a quarter mile away. In theory, the trap releases a flotation device that'll pop up so his sternman can retrieve it.
WELCH: There it is. So I didn't time it, but I would say from the time I deployed it to the time it came to the surface in 50 feet of water was 30 to 45 seconds.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAULER PULLING IN LINE)
MULLEN: From there, things go mostly the way lobstermen have been hauling traps for generations - reel them in, take out the lobsters, rebate, reset, repeat. Welch is against going ropeless. Back on shore, he says the gear is a long way from practical or affordable for a lot of Maine lobstermen, and even then...
WELCH: I foresee it becoming a big-boat fishery. I think it's going to be challenging for new or younger guys or youth even to get into the industry because you're going to have to have such major money for startup costs.
COLLEEN COOGAN: They have a really successful way of fishing. And we are challenging that with something that is unknown. And they call it "Star Wars" technology, which it's not entirely. But you know, it is so different.
MULLEN: Biologist Colleen Coogan leads a team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, charged with reducing whale entanglements.
COOGAN: So far, the measures they've had to do has not put them out of business. And from our assessment of these measures, it's not going to put them out of business either as long as the lobster stock remains strong as well.
MULLEN: That population has spiked since the late '80s, with a six-fold increase in landings, worth about a half a billion dollars a year. But the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world's oceans, and its lobster population will eventually start to decline, says Carla Guenther, chief scientist for the nonprofit Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. And she points to still-emerging changes, such as a wind farm proposed for key fishing grounds in federal waters that many lobstermen oppose.
CARLA GUENTHER: Outside of the abundance of lobster, we have created a whole socioeconomic kind of dependence, even a political framework, around the existence of lobster and how much it means and how much it brings to these communities.
MULLEN: About 4,500 Maine lobstermen have commercial licenses - what many call a graying fleet, with only about 1/3 of its fishermen under 40. Meredith Oliver is 28 and fishes out of Stonington on the Edward Lee, the lobster boat she inherited from her grandfather.
MEREDITH OLIVER: It's something that I've always wanted to do. I just feel so at home on the water.
MULLEN: Do you - have you looked into training yourself to do anything else just in case?
OLIVER: No, not at all. I leave it in the Lord's hands. He's got my back.
MULLEN: Other than a winter job cutting wood, Oliver's business plan is to keep herself debt-free and keep fishing, even if the way she catches lobster has to change. That choice - whether to stay in - is new for some Maine lobstermen, and it's getting harder to make. But they've worked for generations to protect the species, as regulators agree, and for now, there's still a lot of lobster to catch.
For NPR news, I'm Shannon Mullen in Midcoast Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "GLOWING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.