Amid looming environmental and legal threats to the Maine lobster industry, a new leader is coming to a fisheries organization in the state’s most lucrative lobstering port.
The Bangor Daily News spoke to Alexa Dayton, the new executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, about her vision for the future of coastal communities, especially in the wake of the group Seafood Watch telling consumers earlier in September not to eat lobster. The group red listed lobster after another blow to the industry, when a federal judge upheld fishing restrictions to prevent lobstering ropes from entangling critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The decision has been roundly criticized in Maine and raised concerns from fishermen about both their livelihoods and the future of their lobstering heritage. While scientists estimate that fewer than 350 right whales still survive, fewer than 100 of which are breeding females, Maine lobstermen argue there’s no evidence their lines are catching on whales and say they have complied with all regulations.
Dayton has more than 15 years of experience working in fisheries science and policy roles, and believes her background and relationships will help her serve in her new role, which she begins today. In the face of warming ocean temperatures, sea-level rise and water-quality challenges, her vision for the future is one of thriving and climate-resilient communities, she said.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity:
Mehr Sher: What initiatives do you plan on pursuing to help fishermen combat environmental challenges?
Dayton: Our institution is set up to enable the industry to collect data and help fill in the science and data gaps. The second initiative is really around education and giving the next generation the hope to help them see what they can do and how they can be stewards.The third initiative is outreach. … There are a lot of regulations and policies that affect fisheries, and we really need to look at them holistically and convene discussions around how we’re going to enable our fishermen.
I think fishermen are some of the most creative, most adaptable individuals, and they have a long interest in sustainability. … We really need to incorporate adaptation into our regulatory system and look into how we can create a more dynamic management system that will support our industry.
Sher: Which fisheries have been most successful in adapting to environmental challenges?
Dayton: The scallop industry has worked really closely as a unit, as a fishery with the fishermen and the entire community to take on full accountability for what they catch and be willing to make some changes. The scallop fishery reserve is centered in New Bedford, and everybody in that fishery works to adapt and evolve. It’s been a good model of a team effort. They have strong communications. They’ve taken on some gear change-outs and rotational area management, where they leave areas un-fished, knowing that they’ll be there in the future.
Sher: Due to climate change, many species are affected by warmer conditions. For instance, regulators have been considering a permanent closure of the shrimp fishery. Are other fisheries also concerned about closures or a population collapse in the near future?
Dayton: The herring fishery is definitely under duress. We are seeing declines, and herring is the base, a forage species, that underlies the food chain. Herring is also an important bait fish for other species. …
The decline in this species is due to ocean warming. Estimating how many there are is a difficult mathematical problem, and what we think is out there may be less than there is.
Sher: A major concern for many is the cost of new, more sustainable technologies. How can these be more affordable and attainable?
Dayton: It is expensive, and it’s not an easy proposition. We’ve had assistance in gear change-out costs from the federal government. If a significant gear change is to happen in the lobster fishery, it’s probably going to require a significant amount of additional funding support to do that. …
It used to be about $100 for one wire mesh trap with all the rope. Now, it’s closer to maybe $250 to $300 per trap, and I may even be guessing low. Our organization is likely to be a voice in the effort to initiate a funding relief program to support gear adaptation in the lobster fishery.
Sher: How do you see the Seafood Watch’s decision to list lobsters on its red list?
Dayton: The decision was based on their assessment, which may or may not have a full scientific underpinning, and we’ve asked for the scientific underpinning that generated that decision. So far, it’s been difficult to communicate with them on that. The lobster industry has adapted to every regulation that has been put before them. They have complied. It is a sustainably managed fishery, according to the current rules. For Seafood Watch to go forward with their red listing is pre-emptive. … We’re not entirely sure what the basis for that listing is.
Sher: How does this affect Stonington — Maine’s most active lobstering harbor? How are lobstermen in Stonington reacting to all of this?
Dayton: There’s a great amount of fear for their livelihoods and their families. There’s also real anger at the regulatory moves that may disproportionately hit Maine and Stonington. Costs are rising through gear change. The market demand is weakening, so you’re not selling as much, and fuel, ice and bait prices have gone up. When you put all that together, is it still worth fishing? … I think a lot of people may be asking themselves that. This is going to affect our communities, our schools, and people will decide to give up fishing, and that is a cultural heritage at a loss.
Sher: What alternatives are there or gear modifications that could be used safely for lobstering?
Dayton: There’s a lot of talk about ropeless gear, and while the technology may work, putting it together and actually fishing with ropeless gear in an economically viable way is another story. … I think ropeless fishing is something we’re going to have to look at and experiment with. But it’s not easy.
The other option is putting multiple traps on one string on the bottom and having 20 traps attached to each other and then one rope coming up. That’s where you get into safety issues. It’s a lot heavier on your boat, and if something breaks or if the hauler goes wrong, that can be dangerous.
Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.