Jake Smith has been lobstering in Maine since he was 11. Fishing the waters off Blue Hill, he’s run his own boat since 2011 and rebuilt it twice.
But now, Smith, who lives in Surry and turns 31 in December, is fishing for something else: someone to buy the vessel off him.
Facing the prospect of stricter regulations that many fear could choke the state’s largest fishery — plus high fuel costs and bottom of the barrel lobster prices this season — Smith is one of a growing number of Maine lobstermen who are wondering if now is the time to get out of the business.
“It’s pretty grim times,” he said after listing his 34-foot lobster boat on Facebook Marketplace earlier this month. “I hate to give up on it, but I can’t make the money that I used to.”
Many lobstermen are pondering if it’s better to stay the course or if they should sell now while the fishery is still robust and there’s a market for boats, said Virginia Olsen, a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union and a fisherman out of Stonington.
She’s heard from younger fishermen worried for their future and longtime lobstermen who are considering an early retirement. Both groups are concerned that if they don’t sell their boats soon, they could be worthless in the next couple of years if there is a downturn.
“It’s everything they’ve got so they are shaking that crazy eight ball asking, ‘Should I do it now?’” she said.
There isn’t any hard data on the phenomena. An official at the Maine Department of Marine Resources said license data was unlikely to give any insight yet as renewals for next year haven’t started.
But some fishermen across the state said they have noticed an unusually high amount of boats going up for sale.
Jason St. Clair, a Lincolnville lobsterman of 30 years, is looking to retire about five years sooner than he originally planned. He never sought to be one of the lobstermen who were still at the stern into their 60s or 70s, but now, at 50, he’s reconsidered his plan to stop fishing at 55.
Like Smith, he listed his lobster boat on Facebook. When he bought the vessel in 2014, he said there were so few on the market that he had trouble finding one. Now, there’s dozens of listings along the coast.
“I’ve never seen so many boats on the market for sale in Maine,” he said.
St. Clair said his exit is due to him getting old, the economy and impending rules that lobstermen say unfairly target them in an attempt to protect the endangered right whale.
“With all the regulations coming down the pike, I think it’s time to stop,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and I don’t like the government having control of my future.”
With lobster prices at about half of what they were last year, often between $3 and $3.50 a pound, he figures it is time to go back to swinging hammers for a living.
Others, like Kaleb Campbell, a 23-year old lobsterman from North Haven, are looking to stay on the water through aquaculture.
Campbell comes from a long line of fishermen. He started himself as a kid, hand hauling traps from a skiff, and eventually bought his own boat to fish 600 traps. But he’s now looking to sell his gear and possibly join his brother and father, who now both run an oyster farm on the island.
It’s been a tough choice for Campbell, who always imagined that he’d be a lifelong lobsterman who’d eventually bring his kids into the fishery.
“I never thought I would think about getting out of it,” he said. But he’s struggled to make enough money fishing this year to support his wife and children. Fuel costs $6 a gallon, bait’s as expensive as ever and lobster is down to $3 a pound.
“There’s times where I’m wondering if I should tough it out,” he said. “If I do, [my boat] might not be worth anything in a few years if the industry crashed … It’s not an easy decision for me, but I think [getting out] is the route I need to go.”
What’s unfortunate, several lobstermen said, is that these conversations about exiting the industry are partially happening because of the added stress from prospective new rules that regulators say are designed to protect right whales.
But Maine lobster maintain that they don’t see whales and aren’t the ones who are contributing to their march towards extinction. Olsen said that implementing closures and cutting the number of traps in the Gulf of Maine would save just as many Bengal tigers as it would whales.
The industry is currently battling new regulations in court, but the lobstermen that are selling their boats weren’t comfortable gambling on a positive outcome from the courts.
“I know at least four people in the area that are hanging their shoes up,” said St. Clair. “We have a big investment [in our boats]. I don’t want to leave it in a judge’s hand.”