The Last Lobster
Air Date: Week of June 22, 2018
Lobster boats at dusk in Stonington, Maine – the onshore geographic center-point of Maine’s lobster fishery. (Photo: Whewes, Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Maine lobstermen have hauled unprecedented catches and big profits in recent years. But now, the booming industry is seeing some signs of a downturn. Writer Christopher White interviewed dozens of lobstermen and lobsterwomen for his new book, The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery. He tells Host Steve Curwood what a warmer future might hold for the Maine lobster fishery as these crustaceans migrate north in search of colder ocean waters.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. For more than a decade, the State of Maine once featured a red lobster on its license plates to honor its iconic fishery. But today the lobster is gone from those license plates, replaced by the state bird – the chickadee. And lobster may not even dominate Maine’s fisheries forever. It turns out that as U.S. east coast waters have warmed as part of climate disruption, the epicenter of lobstering has shifted north from Casco Bay near Portland to Penobscot Bay, a distance of 160 miles or so. Christopher White has written a new book, “The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery,” and he joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.
WHITE: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: So, for the record, first, Chris, do you eat lobster?
WHITE: I love lobster. I'm a big fan of lobster.
CURWOOD: Ah! With butter or...?
WHITE: Well, I'll tell you, I used to eat it with butter before I started this book project, but spending three or four summers and winters in Maine like I did, I learned to eat lobster the way the local lobstermen eat it, which is with vinegar.
CURWOOD: Indeed. [LAUGHS] Now, in recent years there was a glut of lobsters along the Maine coast. Why, and how has that boom impacted prices?
WHITE: OK. You know, I knew that there was a glut going on with Maine lobsters. In 2012, for the first time, lobsters went over 120 million pounds a year. And that is approximately six times what the lobster catch was in the 1980s when it was just about 20 million or 25 million pounds for the catch. And that level of harvest continued for five more years, 2012 through 2016 it continued. It was a real boom and immediately in 2012, when it first happened, the price plummeted because there was an oversupply of lobsters and the wholesalers couldn't move the lobsters – there were just too many. So, the price plummeted from about $4 a pound down below $2 a pound, which just killed the lobstermen. What the lobstermen did in response was they tried to fix the supply chain, but also what they did was they started to fish much harder. The lobstermen tried to make up in volume what they lacked in price by catching more and more lobsters. They also started to make more money doing that and they became overconfident, really, with how much they were making. Some lobstermen for the first time ever were making $200,000 a year. Teenagers, high school teenagers, were making $50,000 or $60,000 in the summer. And so that was just incredible, and that led to – when they had all this money in their pocket, the local lobstermen started to spend wildly, they bought bigger boats, they hired more crew, and they got way overextended.
CURWOOD: So, how did the individuals that you followed handle this glut? Let's talk about Frank, for example.
WHITE: Yeah, Frank Gotwals is a great character. He is 62 years old and has been lobstering since he was 20. He dropped out of college to move back to his grandparent's home up in Stonington, Maine, so that he could lobster. He worked harder. He went out every day, six or seven days a week, and worked as hard as he could to make up for that lack of price that we were just talking about, and he did very, very well.
The other thing that Frank did unusually was that, he took it upon himself to try to increase the demand of lobsters, so that their price would go back up. And he and some other people created a thing called the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which strives to increase the price and demand of lobsters domestically and overseas. And they just tried to build a bigger demand, which they've done, and the price started to climb up over the last couple of years.
CURWOOD: Indeed right now the prices back up in the double digits, isn't it?
WHITE: It is, it is. And I really look at that as a response of the lobstermen to global warming. They had a glut and a price decrease because of global warming, and they responded to that by trying to increase the demand for lobsters – and they got a better price, so they succeeded.
CURWOOD: So, let's talk about global warming. This is an important part of your book. How does global warming figure into this kind of boom and bust cycle in lobstering?
WHITE: Scientists and fishermen thought that there were probably three main culprits that could be causing the boom. The first was a lack of predators. Cod and other ground fish that had been wiped out from overfishing over the last 20 years were voracious predators of baby lobsters. The second theory was that kelp had increased in its proliferation on the Gulf of Maine because sea urchins were overharvested and sea urchins eat kelp, and that gave protection and camouflage to baby lobsters. But the third reason is global warming, and the reason why people suspected this was that with the temperatures that were increasing so much, not just on land but also just the water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, meant that lobsters were molting earlier. They were molting in June rather than July. They were doing repeat molting where they were molting more than once in the summer, maybe twice, maybe again in the autumn – unheard of really. And the third thing that was happening was that the lobsters were going through early maturation, where females that used to become only able to breed once they were of legal size, they were now breeding at six to seven years in their life cycle. The irony is that the same factor that was causing the boom could be leading to a bust.
CURWOOD: And how's that?
WHITE: OK. The best way to look at this is to look at Long Island Sound as sort of like a preliminary story. In Long Island Sound in the 1990s, they were having a boom because of temperatures and the lobsters were breeding very well. But then in 1999, the lobsters took a nosedive in the Long Island Sound and started to disappear. And then later in 2013, the state of Connecticut reported that over 11 million lobsters died in one summer – nearly 90 percent of the population died from the heat, really like a heat stroke, essentially. So, global warming at modest increases in temperature were causing a population increase, but at higher temperatures they were causing death and a population decrease. So, it's really like two sides of the same coin.
CURWOOD: So, a little bit warmer is a little mo’ bettah for lobsters, a lot warmer is bad news.
WHITE: Exactly true.
CURWOOD: Where are we now on that cycle, do you think, Chris?
WHITE: It's hard to know. It's hard to make predictions, too. In 2017, after the five years that we had from 2012 to 2016 where all the catches in Maine were over 120 million pounds – in 2017, it dropped 16.4 percent. It dropped from 132 million down to 110 million, and that's a very significant drop. If we have a similar drop this summer in 2018, it's really going to spell trouble, but who knows what will happen. It could increase again, it could stabilize, or it could continue to fall.
CURWOOD: You know, I spent some time out in the Hamptons on Long Island back in the late 90s, and I do remember when there was this sort of amazing glut of lobster. It was available at restaurants at very reasonable prices to take home, and then suddenly it was gone. This could be the experience in Maine, it sounds like.
WHITE: It could happen. It could be another story, I mean, it's sort of happened all the way up the coast. It's like a domino effect happening because first Connecticut and Rhode Island and New York State had trouble with the Long Island Sound, and then Narragansett Bay, and then in Massachusetts, Buzzards Bay started to lose their lobsters – and the same harvest decreases have happened up the coast. Some people say, “oh, well Maine's too cold, Maine's cool enough that it's not going to happen there,” but it's been happening all the way up the coast like dominoes.
CURWOOD: The lobstering business has never been particularly easy and given the volatility of the supply and the economy, why do so many folks – and many folks actually risk their lives – to go out and haul their pots to bring us lobsters?
WHITE: Well, I think the first reason is the love of the life. Lobstermen, like commercial fishermen all around the world, around this country, they love their life and they love their livelihood, and it is beautiful to be out there on a lobster boat at dawn when the sun comes up. So, that is a real attraction for most of them, I think. Then secondly, most of the lobstermen up in Maine are sons and grandsons and granddaughters of former lobstermen. And so it's something that they did when they were little children. They were taken out on a lobster boat by their grandfather when they were four or five years old, and they became enchanted with it, I think. But then third I would say is that there's just a lot of money to be made. I mean, they're making a lot of money. The lobstermen that go far out into the ocean sometimes make over $500,000 in a year.
CURWOOD: So, regarding the state of the lobster fishery and really regarding the longevity of their way of life, talk to me about the attitudes of the more seasoned lobster folks as opposed from the younger captain.
WHITE: Julie Eaton, my female lobster captain that I went out with and wrote a chapter on, she said at one point in the day that – and I'm going to paraphrase her a little bit here – she said, we're not really certain about global warming but we're keeping an eye on it. But if it is true, we're really in trouble. And then she said, what lobstermen worry about, they don't talk about it, but what they worry about is going out one morning in their boat and picking up their traps and finding them empty. And so I think that the older lobstermen that are 50, 60, 70 years old, they're talking about trying to lobster through the end of their lifetime or until retirement, but they're worried what's going to happen to their children and grandchildren, whether there are going to be enough lobster to fish.
CURWOOD: So, you mentioned that one of the lobster people, Julie Eaton, says, well, maybe there's climate change, maybe there isn't. How do the other lobster captains feel on this question of global warming?
WHITE: Well, some of them believe it's true and valid and affecting the lobster population and others deny it. It's like the population of the United States. There are some people that are climate deniers and some people embrace it. And lobstermen are very similar to that. They know that fisheries have been cycling for decades and fisheries go up and down and the lobster fishery is no different from that. And so they say, well, it's probably just another dip, but they just, they want to believe that it's just another dip. They don't want to believe that it's a bigger problem than that, but the evidence is starting to come forward that it is a more serious consideration, and that global warming and ocean warming specifically are behind the problem.
CURWOOD: Lobstering is so closely identified with Maine that they put it on some of their license plates. It's really part of the cultural identity. How do you think it's doing with this cultural icon being in the crosshairs?
WHITE: Well, the whole identity of the coast of Maine is wrapped up in the lobster, isn't it? I mean, not just economically and also as far as livelihoods go, but also in terms of tourist dollars. I mean, people come to Maine for the summer in large part to eat lobster. It's a part of this experience. If you go to Boothbay Harbor or Camden or Bar Harbor for a summer visit, the one thing that you want to do while you're there is eat some lobster, so it's very important and part of the whole identity of the place.
CURWOOD: So, if lobsters are so iconic to Maine, and the trajectory of them would seem to be down, what are people saying in terms of limiting both the catch and the export of lobsters?
WHITE: I asked this question. It's a great question and I asked it of most lobstermen that I talked to – why can't we decrease the catch? And that would boost up the price and make the fishery even more sustainable than it might be already, and it makes so much sense to do that. And there's some fisherman like Frank Gotwals that want to do that, but no one else will do it. There have been many debates going on among lobstermen to decrease the number of traps they have in the water, but they won't cut back. They will not cut back.
CURWOOD: Now, what do you make of folks that say that we're looking at signs that the lobster boom may be coming to an end. This year the catch is down after setting that record a couple of years ago. What does this say about the future of Maine's lobster fishery?
WHITE: Well, some people are saying that the only way out of this to make sure that lobstermen don't have to leave the coast of Maine and go to Bangor and Portland to get jobs, or the gentrification starts to happen more than it already has – is to diversify. Because right now, lobstermen and fishermen in Maine are overly dependent upon the lobster. Eighty percent or more of the total catch in dollar value in Maine, the State of Maine, comes from lobsters. So, that sort of dependency makes lobstermen and fisherman very vulnerable to any downturn like we're talking about. So, how can they diversify? They can turn toward sea farming and raise oysters, scallops, mussels, clams and other mollusks that are good for sea farming, and there are a number of fishermen that are already doing this. There's one of the lobstermen that I interview in the book, Peter Miller, who lives at Tenant’s Harbor, has just joined with some other lobstermen to start a scallop farm. So, they're looking to diversify as a way out.
CURWOOD: Christopher White's book is called “The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine's Greatest Fishery.” Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
WHITE: I enjoyed it, Steve.
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