Fishermen aboard Atlantica pull up aside the Stonington town pier just after sunrise on Sept. 16, 2022. The coastal town is the biggest lobster port in Maine and town officials fear that upcoming changes in the industry could hurt the community. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

As the sun rose Friday morning, Stonington’s lobstermen set out for another day’s work. They hopped in their skiffs, picked up bait and puttered out to haul their traps.

From the shore in Stonington, an island community that has long boasted the title of Maine’s biggest lobster port, the scene was picturesque. But both the fishing fleet and town hall fear the community is far from sitting pretty.

After a judge ruled against the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s challenge of fishing regulations designed to protect right whales, it’s not just fishermen who are worried but also town officials. Federal regulators will soon start considering new measures to cut the risk to the whales. That could entail more closures or cuts to the numbers of fishing lines, and likely will result in fewer dollars flowing through fishing communities.

Last year, Stonington pulled a record-setting $73 million worth of lobster — almost $18 million more than the next largest port. If fishing takes a downturn, Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings fears the town will too, accelerating a trajectory toward an economy that relies solely on tourism.

The crew on Calixto, a Stonington fishing boat, head out early on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

“We’re just going to turn into T-shirts and taffy shops,” she said, during a meeting on Sept. 12 to go over the judge’s recent ruling and other threats to the fishing industry.

If the cuts are deep enough, “we’re going to end up losing our schools, our stores and everything else,” Billings said.  

Town officials are working on an economic resiliency plan to help guide Stonington’s future and are now looking at what they can do to help bolster the fleet to ensure the year-round community on the island isn’t hollowed out.

The Select Board considered the idea of chipping in on a public relations campaign to promote lobster after Seafood Watch, an influential sustainability watchdog, advised consumers to avoid lobster.

“We need a better PR campaign for our fishing communities,” said Linda Nelson, the town’s economic development director. “We need the hashtag, we need the bumper sticker, we need the publicity campaign for our fishermen.”

The board, which has multiple members in the lobster industry, also wondered if they should lobby congress for funds to test out new fishing technology that gets rid of the fishing lines that are at the heart of the ongoing legal tug-of-war between conservationists looking to save the endangered right whale and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the fishery.

So-called ropeless fishing gear doesn’t use the traditional lobster setup of a buoy at the surface connected to a trap by a fishing line. Instead, the traps can be called up on-demand using an inflatable bladder or a buoy-release system.

But many lobstermen aren’t willing to test the gear out, feeling it gives a tacit endorsement that Maine lobstermen are the cause of the demise of the right whale — a claim they vehemently deny. For the few that are testing the gear out, there’s little willingness to publicly talk about it for fear of threats from fellow fishermen.

Some town leaders wondered if they should try to destigmatize gear testing so Stonington could be at the forefront of the technology in case it becomes the future of the industry.

“I think it would be helpful … to take some respected fishermen to speak up to make it OK,” said Travis Fifield, a select board member who runs Fifield Lobster Co. in Stonington.

Canada has put $20 million toward the developing whale-safe fishing gear, including ropeless technology, and the board discussed whether they should be pushing for that kind of investment from the U.S. government.

“I just want to see the guys fish,” Billings said.

Ginny Olsen, a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union who fishes out of Stonington, is a member of a federal team that is developing measures to protect whales.

She expects the upcoming changes to the fishery will have a trickle-down effect on Maine’s fishing communities, which often don’t have many other economic opportunities. She said fishermen are wondering if they should invest in bigger boats to handle new gear and longer trawl lines, or sell everything now while it still has some value.

A man walks down to a fishing dock in Stonington on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Olsen doesn’t think that more rules for Maine likely wouldn’t help the species since Maine fishermen aren’t putting whales at risk. Still, she wants people to understand that any new regulations, which are expected to be discussed later this fall, could be a sea change as regulators try to cut risk to whales by almost 90 percent.

“They’re not going to be adjustments,” she said. “They’re going to be large packages.”

That dark cloud that is looming over the industry and Stonington has reduced the number of students in the region who enter high school knowing for certain that they’ll become lobstermen.

Many students coming from fishing families have grown up hearing about climate change and other serious threats to lobstering, said Tom Duym, who runs the Eastern Maine Skippers Program, an initiative that helps high school students in coastal communities explore the maritime field.

More often, he’s seeing students who are interested in lobstering pick up a trade or associate degree as a backup plan. Duym is also trying to introduce these young fishermen to other fisheries to help broaden their perspective and give them a chance to diversify.

Though they are aware of the gloomy outlook, Duym’s hopeful that these students are a sign of how resilient Maine’s fishing communities can be.

“I’m not convinced that things aren’t still going to adapt and move forward, and we’ll still have these communities with fisheries as a vibrant part of the economy,” he said. “But I might be naive.”