The lobster fishing boat Orca heads out to the harbor in Stonington after picking up a passenger at the public landing in November 2018 file photo. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

STONINGTON, Maine — Days after a federal appeals court reinstated a seasonal closure of nearly 1,000 square miles of offshore lobstering grounds, fishermen in the state’s busiest lobster fishing port are in a holding pattern.

“Everybody’s idling right now,” Bill Damon, owner of Damon Family Lobster Co., said Friday. “They are trying to figure out what they have to do.”

Stonington has been Maine’s top lobstering port for years and last year hauled in more than $43 million worth of the lucrative catch. Damon and others in the industry sued the federal government earlier this year when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided to close a 967-square mile area to vertical fishing lines every year between October and January in order to protect endangered right whales in the area from getting tangled in fishing rope.

Conservationists estimate that as of last year there were only 336 right whales in the North Atlantic, a decline of roughly 30 percent in the past decade.

Lobstermen, who say they are not to blame for the decline, were optimistic last month when a federal judge ruled in Bangor that lobstering could continue in the area, a rectangular plot roughly a dozen miles wide and nearly 100 miles long that runs parallel to shore about 30 miles off the middle of Maine’s long coast.

But that ruling was overturned Tuesday by an appeals court in Boston. Lobstermen will now have to move their gear out, a process that is expected to take two weeks.

The ruling will hit Stonington’s offshore fleet, industry members said, and reverberate through town. There aren’t exact figures on how many local lobstermen fish in the affected area, but officials with Maine Center of Coastal Fisheries, which is based in Stonington estimate there are 30 or more local lobstermen who fish there.

There are about 4,500 commercial lobstermen in Maine and about 20 percent of the fleet has offshore permits.

Damon guessed he personally dealt with about 15 lobstermen who set traps in the closure area. In legal filings, he estimated that about a quarter of the 4 million pounds of lobster he sells annually comes from the closed area between October and January. The average price that Maine fishermen earned for their catch in 2020 was $4.20 a pound.

“It’s extremely important down our way,” he said.

Richard Larrabee Jr., has hauled traps in the area for years, but moved his gear this fall to a different area in anticipation of the closure. Larrabee was frustrated over the appeals court decision and said it was unclear what his fellow fishermen would do now they’ve been told to move their traps.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that some lobstermen may decide to continue fishing in the area and take their chances.

Those who move their gear inevitably will crowd other lobstermen who fish nearby.

“It’s devastating to the offshore fishery,” Ron Trundy, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-Op, said of the closure. “You’re putting that much more pressure on a smaller area and that just takes away from everybody.”

NOAA has estimated that in all, about 120 lobster boats would be affected, split evenly between the ones that will be displaced and those that will be crowded by the boats moving out. Lobstermen have scoffed at that number and said it severely underestimates the potential impact.

Fishermen could continue to fish in the area if they use so-called ropeless fishing gear that involves a trap either releasing rope with a buoy or balloon-like float bag from the bottom. Larrabee said many lobstermen distrust the emerging technology and its high cost.  A NOAA spokesperson said Friday that no fishermen have applied for the permit needed to use such gear.

Any losses for the fishery will put pressure on communities like Stonington, where lobstering is the main industry that supports related businesses such as boatyards and trap makers, and where other businesses such as coffee shops, and grocery stores rely on fishermen as customers.

“We’re all interconnected,” said Stonington Selectman Evelyn Duncan. If the fishery shrinks, it could drive residents away and hollow out the year round community, she said.

The fishery has evolved significantly through recent decades, and more changes are expected in the future. Further restrictions for the fishery are expected as federal law continues to compel  NOAA to try to help the right whale population recover, and as climate change continues pushing lobsters further north into cooler waters.

All of those impacts will ripple through Stonington and other fishing ports along Maine’s coast, where lobster accounts for nearly 80 percent of Maine’s $516 million in annual marine harvesting revenue.

“All these small harbors are going to take a big hit,” Trundy said. “Lobstering is it here. This is our life.”