Lobster boats sit quietly on moorings in Bucks Harbor in the town of Machiasport late in the afternoon on Nov. 9, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Maine has more than 3,000 miles of coastline, 4,000-plus lobster boats and a rich heritage of boatbuilding. For John Hagan, an ecologist and chairman of Maine Climate Table, that makes it the ideal place to take the lead on making the lobster fishery greener.

In a new report released this week, Hagan and retired Friendship lobsterman Richard Nelson delved into the feasibility of alternative power sources for lobster boats and encouraged boatbuilders, the lobster industry and others to look into the possibility of electrifying Maine’s lobster fleet.

“We are such a perfect place to try these technologies,” Hagan said. “We’re hoping that the report sparks energy and enthusiasm and people try to take up some of these ideas.”

Diesel has long been the engine of choice for Maine’s lobster fishery, powering everything from propulsion to pumps, trap haulers and other systems on the boat. They’ve had a history of reliability so there’s been little real-world application of alternative systems, Hagan said. But diesel engines have a downside: negative impact on human health and the environment.

With the state looking to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and the Gulf of Maine’s rapid warming endangering the fishery and backbone of the state’s seafood economy, Hagan hopes more eco-friendly options will be considered such as powering boats by hybrid systems, biofuels, hydrogen fuel cell systems and purely electric motors.

One of the big hurdles to alternative propulsion systems is the heavy and wide-ranging duties performed by lobster boats.

Unlike ferries or other boats that have started converting to electric power, a lobster boat is on the water and away from any potential power source for long periods of time, often seven to 10 hours a day for inshore fishermen and even longer for fishermen who venture further offshore. Lobster boats need to be able to cruise at fast speeds as fishermen transit to the fishing grounds but also idle for long periods of time while lobstermen pull up their traps.

Hybrids may offer what the industry needs because they can handle the duality of a lobster boat while still cutting emissions.

“Electric systems work well at low loads and diesels work well at high loads,” Hagan said. Hybrids combine the two.

Research done in Nova Scotia indicates that emissions can be reduced by 30 to 40 percent with a hybrid system, depending on the boat’s workload.

Right now, neither pure battery-powered nor fuel cell systems make sense in a lobster boat. Electric motors would be prohibitively expensive to run and even if battery prices were cheaper, they currently are too bulky and heavy for a lobster boat to carry.  Fuel cell systems have a similar problem, though Hagan and Nelson hope that they could be tested in the transportation sector.

More research is needed to get a better understanding of the everyday operations of a lobster boat so a hybrid system could be tailored to it. After getting that data, the report recommended retrofitting boats with hybrid systems, seeking funding and building new hybrid boats, and looking into new boats with a hull designed by a Maine Maritime Academy professor to increase fuel efficiency.

To take these ideas from the page to reality though will require lobster industry buy-in.

A hybrid engine could theoretically work but changes to engines in the past have been impeded by the lack of space on a lobster boat, said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. If a company could provide proven technology on the water, she thought lobstermen would be open to it.

“I think anybody’s open to change if it actually works,” she said.

The fleet’s portion of emissions is also relatively small. Using previous studies, Maine Climate Table’s report estimates the lobster fleet contributes a small sliver of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions, about 0.78 percent in 2017.

And then there’s the cost factor. Both Hagan and Nelson know that electrifying a fleet won’t be easy or cheap — the report estimated it would cost between $150,000 and $250,000 to retrofit a boat —  and wanted to be clear that they didn’t want to force this upon any fishermen.

Fishermen already are under a lot of pressure and they don’t want to add even more.

But Nelson felt that every sector needs to do its part to lower emissions.

“We’re not trying to push this onto fishermen but we feel that there are people out there — innovative people — who could help this along and perhaps work on this so when the industry is ready, these technologies will be available to them,” said Nelson.