Third-generation lobsterman Nick Prior was in eighth grade when he started working as a sternman on Aquarius, the lobster boat his grandfather built. They still fish together out of Bremen in midcoast Maine. But now, Nick, who is in his last year of high school, is at the helm while Verge Prior, age 77, stuffs the bait bags and bands the claws of their catch. Between hauling traps, Verge quips that he plans to catch lobster until the end of his life. "Some days I feel it's going to be tomorrow, other days it seems longer."
His grandson wants to carry on the family tradition but thinks the future of lobstering is too uncertain to plan his life around. "There's no place I'd rather be during summers, fall and spring" than on a lobster boat, 17-year-old Prior says. But he's also interested in history and hopes to play baseball in college. "Long term I just don't see [lobstering] sustaining me, you know, to have the things I want and need in life."
Prior is one of just over a thousand Maine lobstermen who fish with student licenses while they're in high school or college and working toward a commercial license. State data show their numbers are down about 10% from a peak four years ago, after rising for almost a decade. "There's a lot of kids I know that go now that will not be doing it in even two, three years," Prior says.
Maine does not track how many lobstermen of any age are diversifying into other fisheries or the fast-growing field of aquaculture, even as those in the next generation face unprecedented uncertainty from forces within and outside the fishery. For one, the cost and effort of complying with evolving regulations aimed at protecting the lobster population and other species.
The latest federal rule, announced on Aug. 31 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is part of a plan to stop endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting caught in fishing gear by 2030.
The agency estimates that the population's decline has accelerated in recent years, with 368 right whales remaining. NOAA has documented 34 right whale deaths since 2017, with at least nine of those mortalities confirmed to have been caused by entanglements in fishing gear, including gear used by commercial gillnet or lobster and crab fisheries on the East Coast.
NOAA's new rule requires lobstermen to use gear with state-specific markings that can be traced if a whale gets caught, among other modifications such as weak points in fishing lines that allow entangled whales to break free. The rule will also allow lobstermen to use so-called ropeless gear — a costly and controversial new technology that's still in the early stages of development — in fishing areas that will be closed in certain seasons.
"The beauty of the lobster industry is that there's been a place for everybody," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "We're at risk of putting too many barriers in that are really going to create winners and losers, so it's scary."
McCarron says fishermen want to do their part to protect whales, but she says no Maine lobster gear has ever been confirmed to have caused the serious injury or death of a right whale. A NOAA spokesperson counters that its scientists are unable to determine the source of most entanglements and nearly half of mortalities go unobserved.
On a boat near Kennebunkport, Maine, in late July, lobsterman Chris Welch demonstrated new ropeless gear made by a Massachusetts company. It costs about $4,000 per trap, several times more than a traditional lobster trap, which is usually $80-180. Instead of vertical fishing line that hangs between a buoy on the surface and a lobster trap below, it stores rope on the ocean floor that's deployed on demand using GPS and acoustic signals.
"So far it is retrievable," Welch says. "But the challenge of the Maine fishery is there's 5,000 lobstermen and we all fish amongst each other and attempt not to fish on top of each other. With these units unless you're staring at your electronics all day or your iPad, there's no way of knowing where the next guy is."
The 33-year-old is against going ropeless and thinks the gear is a long way from being practical or affordable for most lobstermen. "I foresee it becoming a big boat fishery," he says. "I think it's going to be challenging for new or younger guys or youth even to get into the industry because you're going to have to have such major money for start-up costs."
Federal fisheries managers hope more lobstermen will try ropeless gear and help improve it, with provisions in the new rule designed to accelerate research and development. "They have a really successful way of fishing and we are challenging that with something that is unknown — they call it Star Wars technology," says biologist Colleen Coogan, who leads a NOAA team charged with reducing whale entanglements. "So far the measures they've had to do [have] not put them out of business. And from our assessment of these measures, it's not going to put them out of business either, as long as the lobster stock remains strong as well."
The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has spiked since the late 1980s, according to stock assessments by interstate regulators. The amount of lobster caught and sold in Maine per year has also been on an overall upward trend since then, reaching 132 million pounds in 2016 before falling in the last few years to 96 million in 2020, according to the state's Department of Marine Resources.
However, research shows the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world's oceans and its lobster population will eventually decline.
"Where we are is probably not a natural or perpetual state of things," says Carla Guenther, chief scientist for the nonprofit Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. Guenther points to other still-emerging changes facing the industry, such as a floating offshore wind farm proposed for key fishing grounds, which she sees as a more imminent threat to the industry's viability. "Outside the abundance of lobster we have created a whole socioeconomic dependence, even a political framework, around the existence of lobster and how much it means and how much it brings to these communities," she says.
Guenther is part of a research team at the University of Maine that's working to measure resilience in the fishery and the communities that depend on it. One study from a Maine nonprofit found that Maine's lobster industry contributes $1 billion to the state's economy each year and supports some 6,000 jobs on the water and 4,000 on land. Research on the industry's vulnerability to change is scarce, particularly of young lobstermen as they reckon with changes that could put their future at odds with centuries of tradition.
About two-thirds of the more than 4,500 Maine lobstermen with commercial licenses are age 40 or older — an imbalance many call a "graying of the fleet" — and only a small fraction are women, including Meredith Oliver, who is 28 and fishes out of Stonington. Oliver was just 15 years old when she inherited her 36-foot lobster boat from her late grandfather after telling him she wanted to fish for life.
"It's something that I've always wanted to do — I just feel so at home on the water," Oliver says, adding that she has not diversified her skills and does not have another source of income besides a winter job cutting wood. Oliver's business plan is to keep herself debt-free and keep fishing, even if the way she catches lobster has to change. "I leave it in the Lord's hands, he's got my back."
The choice of whether or not to keep fishing is new for some Maine lobstermen. Many say it's getting harder to make. But they've worked for generations to protect the species, and regulators agree that there's still more than enough lobster to catch — for now.