Faces of Ocean Planning: Lobsterman Richard Nelson

From his view aboard the FV Pescadero, lobsterman Richard Nelson has witnessed a lot of change along the coastline of Friendship, Maine, over the last 30-plus years.

A proud Mainer with roots generations deep, Richard feels at home on the water along the mouth of Muscongus Bay and within sight of the region’s rocky beaches and island communities.

Throughout the last three decades, Richard has watched Friendship – a small, quiet fishing community – face increasing demands on its coastal ecosystem from both fishing and competing maritime projects.

And with more new development inevitably on the horizon, Richard wonders: Are the powers that be – the state and federal agencies that make decisions about new development projects – communicating not only with each other, but with the people and businesses that call this place home?

Like all fishermen along the Maine coast, Richard views lobstering as much more than a way to earn a living. It’s a way of life that defines the rich culture, maritime history, and very identity of the people who reside along this rugged shoreline and on nearby islands.

With the Gulf of Maine facing a rapid increase in human presence and competing demands – both established and new ­– the buzz around ocean management is growing. But how can communities like Friendship, where livelihoods are inextricably linked to the sea, ensure a level playing field in ocean management conversations when they’re competing to be heard among industry, federal and state agencies, and other ocean stakeholders?

The National Ocean Policy

The answer to this question has come in the form of the National Ocean Policy, enacted by executive order in 2010. It offers the solution of regional ocean planning, which, for Richard, gave the chance for his community to be engaged.

Richard has been heavily involved in New England’s regional ocean planning process since it began. He’s attended  workshops, seminars, and conferences hosted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, Bowdoin College, and the URI International Symposium on Marine Spatial Planning, and he has vocalized his perspective as a local fisherman at every Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting for more than three years.

His message has always been consistent: If local lobstermen in communities like Friendship are displaced as a result of poor stakeholder communication or driven out by larger competitors, they can’t simply move on and begin anew. Their economic survival and way of life depends upon being able to thrive where they are.

Richard has pressed the Regional Planning Body to envision a regional ocean plan that offers a balanced understanding between long-standing industries like the lobster fishery – and its reliance on a healthy ocean ecosystem and resources – alongside offshore wind energy, recreation, shipping, and other newer ocean uses, so they can all continue to thrive in New England.

Everybody wins

Furthermore, the data available to all parties as a result of the regional ocean plan will improve state and federal understanding of the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. Backed by the best available science, fisheries management can be improved to ensure continued access to fishing grounds while building a sustainable fishery.

The use of centralized data by federal and state entities is important not just for fisheries management. It’s also key to other regulatory actions related to marine life, marine habitat, and human uses, in that it will better inform ocean management decisions across the board.

For maritime communities like Friendship, the regional ocean plan represents a formal effort to recognize and include local community perspectives and needs, like Richard Nelson’s hope of keeping the F/V Pescadero afloat and working for years to come.

The draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be released May 25, 2016, followed by a public comment period. Conservation Law Foundation and NEOAN (The New England Ocean Action Network) will work together to analyze and inform New Englanders about the key elements of the plan through blog posts, webinars, and more. More information will be available soon. By the fall, the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be finalized by the National Ocean Council.

The New Signs of Spring

Spring has sprung, New England style. All the signs are there – the crocuses came up then got covered by sloppy, wet snow, and there’s a bunch of mud underneath it all. What New Englander doesn’t love this time of year? We get to think about shedding our winter wrappings and revealing our tender flesh to the warmer weather.

This happens in the ocean, too. Maine lobsters typically molt (shed the old shell and grow a new one) in the spring, as the water gets warmer. Lobstermen know this, and structure their fishing time around it. Richard Nelson, a lobsterman in Friendship, Maine, says he tries to catch the hard-shell lobsters in early spring before the molting starts, and then starts catching the new shedders right around when the summer tourists show up. The shedders are easier to eat, with their softer shells, and are sweeter tasting. But the shedders are also more fragile, and can’t be shipped very well, so they need to be eaten locally or sent to a processor.

“Lobstermen usually look forward to the shedders as newfound abundance,” said Richard. Lobsters that were previously too small to keep are bigger after they’ve shed, and are more likely to be of legal size. Normally, the appearance of the shedders is good news, but last year the lobsters in Maine were molting a month earlier than usual, which threw a monkey wrench into the whole fishing season. The tourists weren’t there yet to eat the shedders, and the processors were busy with Canadian lobsters, so they couldn’t take the Maine product.

And there are signs that it’s happening again this year, according to Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Warmer than usual ocean water could be driving the lobsters from their deeper winter homes towards their shallower molting grounds too early for the summer tourists and processors to consume.

This is not the only change we’re seeing. According to Bob, there is a lobster population boom underway from north of Cape Cod well up into Canada. They are increasing in number from year to year, to the point that they are might be overcrowding the ecosystem, which might make them more vulnerable to disease and is possibly leading to cannibalism.

Why are there so many lobsters? Bob thinks there might be few factors at play. First, he thinks it’s possible that water pollution south of Cape Cod might be inhibiting lobster recruitment, while waters to the north are cleaner. Temperature is probably a factor as well, for a couple of reasons. First, lobsters grow more quickly in warmer water. Newly hatched lobsters spend their larval stages near the surface of the water, where they are more exposed to predators, and have to develop adequately before they can settle on the relative safety of the ocean floor. When they grow faster, they reach safety faster. The second reason temperature could be helping lobster populations to increase is that warmer waters can increase the amount of food available to lobsters, which fuels their faster growth –  they only grow quickly if there is enough to eat.

If you add it all up – warm, clean water with lots to eat, you get population growth. What usually keeps growth from becoming a boom is predators – in this case, fish like cod and haddock. Cod and haddock, you’ve probably heard, are not having a population boom. So with fewer things around to eat them, except for hungry tourists – and there’s a short season for those – the lobster continue to boom.

Spring is a time of change, of re-growth and renewal. It is also turning into a time of more bad news for New England lobstermen, who depend on a healthy lobster population with a predictable seasonal molt to make a living. Last year, even with the abundance of lobsters in the sea, fishermen struggled with low market prices due to the glut of product. The entire ecosystem in our New England waters is shifting, and it’s anybody’s guess how things will end up, but it seems clear that making a living from the sea is becoming more unpredictable.