Business

The Last Lobster Supper?

New England lobsters are caught in a perfect storm of warming seas and save-the-whales activism. Could this be the end of our best-loved summer tradition as we know it?


Illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Mark Ring has been fishing the Stanley Thomas for nearly 30 years. With its red hull, the sturdy boat is the watercraft incarnation of Ring himself—a burly guy with permanently ruddy cheeks just above the hairline of his Vandyke beard. It is his second boat. It is also his last. Ring started lobstering when he was a teenager. Back then, he recalls, he didn’t have to go far from shore to set his traps. He’d head out and, barring thick morning fog, he could see the coastline and hundreds of lobster buoys bobbing in the waters before him. “You could drop your cages and hear them hit the bottom,” Ring says in a steep North Shore accent, leaning against the Stanley Thomas’s worn center console while remembering the old days. He’d haul his yellow traps up from the sea floor, the ropes slimy with algae, the cages bursting with lobsters aggressively clawing to get out. After a typical nine-hour day, Ring would return to the marina, hoist his traps onto the wet deck, and offload 2,000 lobsters.

That’s all changed now. The days are longer and the haul is harder won. When Ring motors out predawn from the backshore Gloucester marina where he’s docked the Stanley Thomas for years, he must power out farther to deeper, colder water. “The lobsters are just not settling in 6 feet of water like they did 15 years ago,” he says. “They want to find the optimum temperature. And that temperature is at 20 feet.” When Ring heads back in at the end of a long day, the lobsters in his traps have far too much legroom. He is netting less than half of what he used to.

In the face of climate change, throughout New England, the American lobster is vanishing, and the lobsters that remain are quickly heading farther out to sea in search of colder waters. Rising pH levels in the waters closer to shore have also contributed to weaker shells, which reduce the chances the lobsters will make it to market alive. More often than not, lobstermen are tossing this weak-shelled catch back into the ocean. Such factors help explain why lobstermen across New England are seeing the weight of their landings continue to dip; last year, Maine’s landings dropped by 21 million pounds, to about 100 million, the lowest in more than a decade.

That’s a steep decline, but it’s nothing compared to what will become of the industry if the self-coronated “Prince of Whales,” New Hampshire’s Richard “Max” Strahan, has his way. He has all but made it his mission to end lobster fishing in order to save the endangered North Atlantic right whale—and, as a result, the future of the beloved lobster roll as we know it is looking pretty bleak. His adversaries have a different nickname for him: Mad Max.

A career endangered-species activist, Strahan sports an overgrown mustache, a floppy fisherman’s hat, and a smug grin. He’s filed more lawsuits than he can practically count on behalf of the right whale, and never eats seafood. “I’ve ruined more than a few clambakes,” he says. “Just try to put a lobster in a pot in front of me!” He has been arrested multiple times, and his frequent outbursts have earned him a police escort at most meetings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, where he shows up to advocate for whales and also trade insults with lobstermen. For very good reasons, his only listed contact is a post office box.

To lobstermen, though, Strahan has proven himself far more than a vaudevillian nuisance. In April, he scored his most significant legal win to date when a federal judge ruled that Massachusetts state regulators are in violation of the Endangered Species Act when granting licenses to any lobsterman who uses lobster lines. That ruling, by the way, affects nearly all of the state’s lobstermen, who use these ropes to attach their traps to the buoys on the surface, enabling them to haul up their traps. The lines pose a lethal threat to the right whale, which can get entangled in them, and some say a reckoning has been a long time coming. “The industry has been playing with fire,” says Antonio Bussone, who is in charge of buying lobsters at Ipswich Shellfish Company, an international seafood distributor. “A lot of people have made a lot of money. It’s been a great ride. It’s going to have to change.”

Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and the Row 34 restaurants, who buys all of his lobster from his cousin Mark, a lobsterman in Maine, says the impact that a shutdown would have on New England families can’t be underestimated. “It’s a way of life for tens of thousands of people, and has been for generations,” he says. After all, in Maine, lobsters are a billion-dollar business, the highest-value seafood coming out of the state. In Massachusetts, they are a beloved tradition. “The lobster roll is easily one of our four most popular items,” Sewall says. “I buy 225,000 to 250,000 pounds of lobster a year. I mean, I have people in the restaurants whose whole job is to cook and clean lobster. From a culinary perspective, this is obviously a tragedy.”

In fact, if things keep on the way they’re going, some summer evening in the not-so-distant future, restaurant-goers may sit outside as the sun goes down to indulge in their favorite local meal, only to find it’s not so local anymore—if it’s on the menu at all.

There was a time when global warming did wonders for New England lobstermen. For years, one of the crustacean’s strongholds was in and around Long Island Sound. As waters warmed, though, the lobster population moved right into Ring and his fellow lobstermen’s backyard: the Gulf of Maine, a 36,000-square-mile patch of Atlantic Ocean that stretches from Cape Cod up to Nova Scotia. The Gulf soon became ground zero for lobstering, producing 90 percent of the world’s supply. Maine lobstermen benefitted more than anyone else, as their state’s industry grew to produce six times more lobster than the 20 million pounds per year it had done in the 1970s and ’80s, says Richard Wahle, a professor at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences and director of the school’s Lobster Institute. Meanwhile, in southern New England and Long Island Sound, shell disease caused by warming waters has all but wiped out the catch.

What climate change gives, though, it also, eventually, takes away. Especially in the Gulf of Maine, where temperatures are rising faster than they are in 99 percent of the world’s oceans. As a result, it isn’t just that lobsters are heading into deeper waters in the Gulf; they’re slowly but surely swimming for the border, heading northward toward Canada’s Bay of Fundy. In fact, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, by midcentury, warming waters could cut lobster populations in the gulf by up to 62 percent. “We’re seeing more heat waves in the Gulf of Maine, and really strong rapid warming trends,” says Katherine Mills, a research scientist at the GMRI. “So the question and concern is really not if, but when. Certainly, by midcentury we see that the temperatures expected for this region would trigger a major decline.”

As dire as that sounds, it is the effect of warming waters on North Atlantic right whales that may prove to be the more immediate threat to lobstering. Climate change has shifted the migratory patterns of these mammals, sending them straight into the lobster line of fire. The number of North Atlantic right whales has decreased by about 20 percent over the past decade, leaving roughly 400 of them alive today. According to a report from the NOAA Fisheries, 85 percent of those 400 have been entangled in a lobster line at least once.

Over the past several decades, the Massachusetts and Maine industries have implemented many changes to their lobstering practices in order to help stop entanglements. This includes adopting a floating, whale-safe rope, using breakaway buoys, and, in Massachusetts, ceasing all lobster fishing for three months in early spring (the direct result of one of Strahan’s earlier legal victories), which reduces annual takes by thousands of pounds. Still, these changes may not be enough to stop the whales’ decline.

That’s why lobstermen like Maine’s Ian Lussier, who first started hand-hauling at age 16, don’t think they should have to change their ways—which, he argues, have far less negative impact on the ocean than many other fisheries. He also points out that the majority of whales killed in recent years have died by ship strikes or after being entangled in crab nets, and almost exclusively in Canada. “No lobsterman wants to see whales die,” he tells me, standing on the weathered wood dock of the Tenants Harbor wharf. “There hasn’t been a recorded confirmed entanglement with Maine lobster gear as long as we can remember. But we’re going to bear a huge brunt of the cost if regulations change.”

Lussier is right to worry about his business. Even if Strahan’s lawsuit isn’t wholly successful and lobstering is allowed to continue, there’s a very good chance Lussier and his fellow lobstermen will be required to operate under such stringent requirements that none of them will be able to afford to stay afloat. He points to one idea that’s come up among conservationists: ropeless fishing, in which traps pop up triggered by sonar. It’s something that’s been successfully implemented in Australia. “In theory, it sounds good and could work, but it couldn’t work in Maine,” Lussier says, explaining that with so many fishermen, traps of different lobstermen are often piled on top of one another, which would prevent the ones at the bottom from popping up.

What’s more, such traps are expensive. By Strahan’s gleeful estimate, it would take a lobsterman running 800 traps about $180,000 to convert to any of the existing ropeless technologies. “Most would have to get a loan, and a lot of them say they won’t,” he says, making it clear at least part of his problem with the industry is, not unironically, with the stubborn guys who make it up. “Will the state buy a house for them? We’re in the middle of coronavirus, street riots. To outfit an entire fishery would cost $1 billion. And that’s just the first installment, because lobstermen lose 20 to 30 percent of their gear every year. So, I mean, do we like lobsters that much? Do they have that sort of political power?”

Already, a lot of lobstermen could use a bigger, better boat. “We’re going farther offshore in deeper water,” Lussier says. “And we’re doing it later in the year, so the weather’s terrible. It would be nice to be in a safer boat.” That, too, costs money. Lots of it. “If I was 30 years old, would I be investing in a $700,000 boat to lobster?” Ring says. “No way.”

That’s because to make an investment of that kind, lobstermen like Ring and Lussier would need to know that their industry is going to be around for the long haul. Between right whale troubles and climate change, for perhaps the first time in New England history, that is not something anyone can guarantee.

Gloucester lobstermen find themselves in something of a trap from which there seem to be few, if any, exits. The federal court’s April ruling gave Massachusetts regulators 90 days to apply for a permit from NOAA Fisheries to continue using lobster lines, but the permitting process takes a year. The manual explaining the application is some 400 pages, and the complex paperwork is subject to reviews by several federal agencies. Besides, permits allowing for the use of anything that threatens an endangered species are never granted anyway.

The ruling also opened the door for Strahan to return to court after the 90 days is up and ask the judge to cease lobster operations immediately, citing the fact they’re doing business without the required permit. Strahan says “you’d better believe” that is what he plans to do, and everyone involved knows it. While the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) declined to comment on the lawsuit, DMF spokesperson Katie Gronendyke says the Division “remains committed to the conservation of the North American right whale” and “will continue to work with partners on a multifaceted approach to conservation including regulations, research, and investments in technology advancements to protect this endangered species while ensuring the viability of Massachusetts’ vital commercial fishing industry.”

That makes Strahan laugh. “They’re sweating!” he says. “They should be! The law is on my side. It’s going to be easy to win—like putting a quarter in the parking meter.”

Back in Gloucester, it’s not in Ring’s nature to panic, at least not visibly. He’s near the end of his career and ready to hand the business off to his nephew, even though Ring’s not sure his nephew wants it. But Ring is worried. “I can’t see a single federal judge wanting to shut down an entire industry, but I also said Donald Trump would never get elected,” he says. “What surprises anyone?” Plus, he’s seen this sort of thing before, back when regulations designed to protect the codfish all but wiped out ground fishing. “The lobster industry has always had this attitude of, ‘Well, we’re all set. They’re not going to do anything to us,’” Ring says. “But the guys like me that went fishing offshore, we saw it happening around fish. There’s no mercy, there’s no concern for the fisherman whatsoever. So [lobstermen are] on the hot seat now. When ground fishermen went through it, it was always, ‘You guys are next.’ And now we’re here.” He’s keeping his fingers crossed that whales stay unentangled in the meantime.

Lobstermen in Maine are paying close attention to Strahan’s legal maneuverings in Massachusetts, and for good reason. Strahan says he is planning to file a similar lawsuit in Maine next.

The kicker, says Strahan, who gets more animated as our conversation goes on, is that the whales are pretty much doomed no matter what. North Atlantic right whales live and give birth along the Atlantic coastline, which has been devastated over the past two decades in large part by commercial development. In 2017, the North Atlantic right whale population didn’t reproduce at all, usually considered the death knell for an endangered species. In late June, a six-month-old right whale calf was found dead with propeller wounds off the coast of New Jersey. Lobstering had nothing to do with it, but it won’t help the industry’s case. “It’s not really that they’re being caught in fishing gear,” Strahan admits. “It’s the fact that they don’t reproduce anymore. That’s what’s killing them.”

Not even that stark admission, though, makes Strahan ready to lay down his arms. He insists he isn’t vengeful. He just believes in consequences: Someone has to pay. (And, perhaps, he really wants to win—at all costs, too.) “That’s what makes this a Greek tragedy,” he says. “You must suffer if you’ve been bad. I like commercial fishermen in the sense that I support working-class people. But you can’t show up and endanger wildlife while you do it. You have to adapt. But they don’t, and yet no one messes with them; they never have. They’re stealing from the ocean and they never give back.”

Even if the whales don’t make it, lobster rolls will—at least for a while—but they are bound to be more expensive. If the local fleet opts for ropeless traps, the industry will have to invest, and the costs will be passed on to consumers. Which means, says Sewall, of Island Creek Oyster Bar, that his $28 roll could cost $40. Meanwhile, the days of the $4.99-per-pound lobster at Market Basket will be nothing more than a fond memory.

On the other hand, if Strahan is successful in shutting down the industry altogether in Massachusetts and then in Maine, it could mean the end of New England lobster at any price. Restaurants and stores would then have to source the delicacy from Canada, something that Strahan sees as no big deal. “Canadian lobster,” he says. “That stuff’s kickin’. You go to Canada and get a lobster and you know the difference. If I was going to eat lobster—and I’m not saying I would—I’d eat it in Canada.” Never mind that almost all of the North Atlantic right whales killed in recent years were killed not in Maine or Massachusetts, but in Canadian waters.

Even if Strahan doesn’t prevail, though, climate change likely will. Sooner or later, we may end up in the same place anyway, a place where New Englanders sit down to dig into their favorite, most iconic summertime meal—the corn on the cob and the steamers will be local, while the most important part of the meal comes from someplace else.