The Universal Notebook: Lobstermen tilt at whales, windmills

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Elroy “Snoody” Johnson (1894-1973) was a well-known fisherman from Harpswell. He often lobbied the Maine Legislature on behalf of fishing interests and he was the model for sculptor Victor Cahill’s “The Maine Lobsterman,” copies of which can be seen in downtown Portland, Bailey’s Island, and Washington, D.C.

“The Maine Lobsterman” was commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but the state did not appropriate enough money to have it cast in bronze, so Cahill’s plaster mold was exhibited at the fair instead. Sculptor Norman Therrien made the bronze castings in 1975, two years after Johnson died.

Lobstermen are independent, opinionated cusses, so it’s not surprising that they faulted a statue of a lobsterman kneeling down to peg a lobster. Lobstermen usually stand to do that, wooden pegs having since been replaced by rubber bands. And those who knew Johnson complained that his dog Bruno, who also had a lobster license, should have been included. Johnson and Bruno were inseparable.

These days, Maine lobstermen could use a Snoody Johnson to champion their cause.

The lobster industry is constantly under attack. First, it was Trump’s trade policies shutting off the China market. Then the pandemic shut down restaurants. Now that markets are opening back up, the supply of lobsters can’t meet demand so prices are exorbitant, $13-$18 a pound in some cases.  Lobstermen should be getting rich, but they can’t seem to catch enough “bugs.”

Lobstermen are Maine’s version of cowboys. And just as cattle ranchers out west tend to think the public lands where they graze their herds belong to them, fishermen sometimes act as though the fish in the sea are theirs for the taking. But the resources of the sea do not belong to fishermen. They are in the public domain. That’s a truth that underlies the most pressing issues the lobster industry faces.

Maine has 4,000 or so lobstermen, down from more than 10,000 in the 1970s. These days the surviving fishermen are tilting at whales and windmills.

Federal efforts to protect the right whale, whose numbers are down to 400, from gear entanglement threaten the viability of lobstering. Lobstermen will argue that no Maine lobster line has ever been shown to be responsible for killing a whale, yet studies suggest that 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been caught up in fishing gear at some point in their lives, so someone’s lines are to blame. The feds want an immediate 60 percent reduction in vertical ropes in the ocean.

That said, Maine lobstermen have historically done a great job of conserving the resource, using a zone system that includes license, trap, and season limits to maintain a sustainable fishery. 

This summer, the most visible lobstering issue is offshore wind turbines. Signs opposing a massive wind turbine off Monhegan Island line midcoast roads, urging Mainers to “Stop the Mills.” The wind farm is a collaboration between New England Aqua Ventus and the University of Maine.

I don’t think anyone really knows how a single, pilot wind turbine would impact fishing, but lobstermen are naturally concerned about large arrays of industrial offshore wind turbines.

If the $147 million Maine Aqua Ventus project comes into direct conflict with Maine’s $400 million-a-year lobster fishery, I have a feeling an ill wind blows for lobstermen. For despite the iconic status of Homarus americanus, lobsters are a delicacy, not a necessity. And techies are starting to grow lobster meat in laboratories.

Yet another worry for the remaining lobstermen.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.