LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Maine's lobster fishery has one of the most abundant and valuable wild seafood stocks in U.S. waters. But those waters are fast warming due to climate change. And with new regulations this week to protect endangered right whales, change is coming for Maine lobstermen and women, especially the next generation.
Shannon Mullen reports.
SHANNON MULLEN, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Nick Prior started working the stern on his grandfather's lobster boat when he was in eighth grade.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR RUMBLING)
VERGE PRIOR: What do you see in there?
NICK PRIOR: A whole lot of nothing.
MULLEN: They still fish together out of Bremen. But now the younger Prior is at the helm, and Verge, who's a spry 77, fills the bait bags.
How long are you going to keep doing this?
V PRIOR: 'Til I die. Some days I feel it's going to be tomorrow. Other days, it seems longer (laughter).
MULLEN: But his grandson hopes to play baseball in college and says carrying on the family tradition is a fallback.
N PRIOR: There's no place I'd rather be during the summers and the fall and spring. But long-term, I just don't see it sustaining me, you know, to have the things I want and need in life.
MULLEN: Nick Prior is one of just over 1,000 Maine lobstermen who fish with student licenses while they're in high school or college working toward a commercial license. State data show their number is down 10% from a peak four years ago after rising for almost a decade. Maine does not track how many are diversifying into other fisheries or the fast-growing field of aquaculture.
N PRIOR: Lobstering is always going to have a special place in my heart. But I know for a fact that there's a lot of kids that I know that go now that will not be doing it in even two, three years.
PATRICE MCCARRON: The beauty of the lobster industry is that there has been a place for everybody.
MULLEN: Patrice McCarron heads the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
MCCARRON: And we're at risk of putting too many barriers in that are really going to create winners and losers. So it's scary.
MULLEN: Including the uncertainty and cost of compliance with evolving federal rules aimed at stopping endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting caught in fishing gear. McCarron says Maine lobstermen want to do their part, but their gear has never been the confirmed cause of a serious right whale injury or death. Regulators add they can't confirm the source of most entanglements. Their new rule requires gear markings and other modifications, but also allows lobstermen to use so-called ropeless gear in fishing areas that will be closed in certain seasons. 33-year-old Chris Welch is one of the first in Maine to test the high-tech new traps.
CHRIS WELCH: Yeah, so right now we're headed out of the Kennebunk River on the fishing vessel Foolish Pride.
MULLEN: Welch started lobstering at age six and exudes his decades of experience, even when he's hunched over an iPad at the helm. Instead of looking for a colored buoy on the water, he's using an app to signal a $4,000 trap somewhere on the ocean floor a quarter mile away. In theory, the trap releases a flotation device that'll pop up so his sternman can retrieve it.
WELCH: There it is. So I didn't time it, but I would say from the time I deployed it to the time it came to the surface in 50 feet of water was 30 to 45 seconds.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAULER PULLING IN LINE)
MULLEN: From there, things go mostly the way lobstermen have been hauling traps for generations - reel them in, take out the lobsters, rebate, reset, repeat. Welch is against going ropeless. Back on shore, he says the gear is a long way from practical or affordable for a lot of Maine lobstermen, and even then...
WELCH: I foresee it becoming a big-boat fishery. 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 startup costs.
COLLEEN COOGAN: They have a really successful way of fishing. And we are challenging that with something that is unknown. And they call it "Star Wars" technology, which it's not entirely. But you know, it is so different.
MULLEN: Biologist Colleen Coogan leads a team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, charged with reducing whale entanglements.
COOGAN: So far, the measures they've had to do has 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.
MULLEN: That population has spiked since the late '80s, with a six-fold increase in landings, worth about a half a billion dollars a year. But the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world's oceans, and its lobster population will eventually start to decline, says Carla Guenther, chief scientist for the nonprofit Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. And she points to still-emerging changes, such as a wind farm proposed for key fishing grounds in federal waters that many lobstermen oppose.
CARLA GUENTHER: Outside of the abundance of lobster, we have created a whole socioeconomic kind of dependence, even a political framework, around the existence of lobster and how much it means and how much it brings to these communities.
MULLEN: About 4,500 Maine lobstermen have commercial licenses - what many call a graying fleet, with only about 1/3 of its fishermen under 40. Meredith Oliver is 28 and fishes out of Stonington on the Edward Lee, the lobster boat she inherited from her grandfather.
MEREDITH OLIVER: It's something that I've always wanted to do. I just feel so at home on the water.
MULLEN: Do you - have you looked into training yourself to do anything else just in case?
OLIVER: No, not at all. I leave it in the Lord's hands. He's got my back.
MULLEN: Other than 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. That choice - whether to stay in - is new for some Maine lobstermen, and it's getting harder to make. But they've worked for generations to protect the species, as regulators agree, and for now, there's still a lot of lobster to catch.
For NPR news, I'm Shannon Mullen in Midcoast Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "GLOWING LIGHT")
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