The Working Waterfront

Will innovation save lobstering?

Bleak outlook on right whale rules are a driver

Tom Groening
Posted 2022-10-27
Last Modified 2022-10-27

The concept of innovation tends to inspire images of bio-geneticists tinkering with DNA to create cancer-resistant cells. But sometimes, innovation comes in decidedly low-tech form.

I attended the every-other-year Beaches Conference in June, and one of the presenters showed slides of how the town of York dealt with perennial ocean splash-over on a beachfront road. The road—which probably shouldn’t have been built along the shore to begin with—was protected by large boulders configured at about a 30-degree angle.

In big storms, the waves sloshed up the ramp-like structure, flooding the road, and then slid back down to wash out parts of the beach.

Recently, the town built what amounted to large granite steps, about 2-feet high and maybe 3-feet deep. The waves now hit the first vertical block, splash up onto the flat area, and, having lost most of their energy, fall back down, doing little damage.

A photo showed how well this worked—after a snowfall, the road that still featured the rocks was clear from the saltwater melting the snow, while the snow was still visible along the section with the granite steps.

If lobstering is choked out of existence, the Maine coast will be unrecognizable.

Another low-tech innovation that comes to mind was conceived and adopted by the lobster fishery. Vents in traps, configured to allow under-sized lobster to escape, have kept the population healthy.

I was reminded of this history recently after two conversations, one with someone very close to the industry, and the other with a scientist somewhat removed from the fishery.

The first conversation left me with a sense of dread. The fishery might very well face regulations to protect North Atlantic right whales that could effectively shut down lobstering, my source said. Scary stuff.

The second conversation was more of a listening session, during lunch at an Island Institute conference in Portland. A scientist with a background at a Massachusetts nonprofit made the case that if lobstering does indeed face crippling regulations, there are only two ways out—amend the Endangered Species Act or embrace new ways of fishing.

You can make the case that federal law is too reactive for threatened species. While standing by to watch a species die out is not good for the long-term health of our world, you have to wonder if the law could be eased to correspond with severe economic impacts. If lobstering is choked out of existence, the Maine coast will be unrecognizable. Not a good outcome.

But my new scientist friend suggested that technology is available to eliminate vertical lines, the gear regulators say puts whales at risk.

He conceded that yes, it will be expensive to outfit boats with one of several ways buoys and ropes might be deployed from the bottom.

He also asserted that federal defense funding might be directed toward Gulf of Maine lobster trap upgrades. Why? Because along with the wireless communication between boat and trap, there might be opportunities to include electronic surveillance equipment, he said.

Lobster traps monitoring the Russian submarine fleet? Hmmm. Well, it’s possible, he said. And certainly scientific measuring devices could be affixed to traps, and that, too, would come with funding.

But his most compelling argument was that with Sen. Susan Collins the ranking member of the powerful appropriations committee, and with Sen. Angus King holding a vote essential to Democrats, Maine might land federal funding for the fishery to make the transition to ropeless fishing. Just as federal money supports corn growers in Iowa, helping the iconic Maine lobsterman might be an easy sell.

And here is where we return to the idea of innovation. It must be embraced.

Imagine the meeting at which an engineer first suggested that kinetic energy from slowing a car might be harnessed to charge a battery, another low-tech concept. Crazy talk! Or is it what made Prius a household name?

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be reached at