Learning From Maine's Lobster Wars


Photo by law_keven/Flickr CC

With the end of summer on the coast of Maine, vacationers and tourists have mostly returned to their cities, leaving behind fishing villages that now seem almost empty. But the coast of Maine isn't quiet. September is when the big autumn lobster harvest begins. Now the roar of diesel boat engines is echoing across Maine's small harbors, and the lobstermen are putting their backs into the hard work of hauling traps at breakneck speed in worsening weather.

On top of the work, there is worry--worry about a troubling episode of violence. Over the summer, national news reports seemed to indicate that in the quaint coastal villages of Maine, lobstermen had started gunning each other down like so many inner-city gangsters. In July on the island of Matinicus, one fisherman had shot another in the neck with a .22 caliber pistol over a territory dispute. Though the victim survived, the episode has shattered the image of Maine as a peaceful retreat, and cast doubt onto the future of one of our most iconic American fisheries.

This is shocking, because Maine's rugged coast, with its intimate coves, blueberry-covered islands, and picturesque New England hamlets has long offered city dwellers an escape from the heat and aggravation of urban life. People stream to Maine each summer to reconnect with small-town values and seek the wisdom that seems to accrue through contemplation of the sea. Simple pleasures abound; the perfect meal is a boiled lobster, and the perfect conversation is a chat about fishing, or the weather, with the wizened lobsterman who caught it.

What has made the Maine lobster fishery such a conservation success story for decades is exactly this sort of nasty fight over fishing territory.

Implicit in this escape to Maine is an expectation that the crime and violence of urban life have been left behind. Lobstermen themselves can even seem like holdovers from an old-fashioned age. They leave their keys in the ignition of their trucks, they help each other out in times of need, and they've chosen to keep their businesses small-scale, sustainable, and individually owned.

Even before the shooting in July, though, the woes of lobstermen had started making headlines, as the industry struggled with low prices for its catch caused by the financial crisis. The shooting over disputed fishing territory revealed how deep the tensions go, and seemed a harbinger of the end for yet another fishery--and maybe even for Maine's ideal way of life.

It's true that a shooting is never good news. But the violence on Matinicus isn't so far removed from the traditional small-town values of Maine as we might think. I'd argue it's actually a manifestation--though a misguided one--of the wisdom that lobstermen have themselves accrued through their own contemplation of the sea. For what has made the Maine lobster fishery such a conservation success story for decades, and a model of enlightened food production today, is exactly this sort of nasty fight over fishing territory.

In the mid-1990s I worked on a Maine lobster boat for two years, and back then territorial disputes were already a longstanding feature of the industry. The fights would start with the molestation of an intruder's equipment, and often escalated to shouting matches, severed trap lines, shattered house windows, and even the occasional arm or leg broken by a baseball bat. Guns might appear aboard a boat. I heard of one old-timer who refused to upgrade from a wooden boat to a fiberglass boat because he felt wood would stop a bullet better.

As early as the 1970s an anthropologist named James Acheson studied such lobstering disputes, and was able to show in detail how the lobstermen of Matinicus and other communities protected their fishing grounds from outsiders--exactly the same issue that has roiled Matinicus this summer.

Lawlessness and violence aren't to be condoned, of course. But by protecting their territories, what Maine lobstermen have done for generations is to create--informally--the equivalent of privatized fishing rights. As a result, the lobstermen have a vested long-term interest in the sustainability of their patches of sea. The Maine lobster industry has thus avoided the so-called "tragedy of the commons"--the free-for-all that results when no one is the responsible owner of a communal resource.

Maine still needs to devise a legal framework for these lobstering traditions so that such disputes don't escalate towards criminal behavior. But this is a challenge that actually puts Maine at the forefront of fisheries management today. Top-down government programs have failed to slow the commercial extinction of species after species. Now, around the world, and in the Obama administration, managers are increasingly turning to various forms of privatized fishing rights as the last hope for saving our beleaguered stocks of seafood.

As the busy fall lobstering season gets underway, let's hope the victim of the Matinicus shooting is able to recover and get back to work. But let's also hope that fisheries regulators have taken note. If all fishermen everywhere could be given reasons to feel this passionately about their long-term stake in a particular piece of ocean--within a legal framework that prevents violent confrontation--the seas might just have a chance of returning to abundance.