The Long Arc of Maine’s Coastal Economy

As lobsters move farther offshore, what industries will support Maine’s coastal economies in the future?

an approaching storm encroaches the Deer Island Thorofare Light, on Mark Island, off Stonington.

In the photo that photographer Peter Ralston calls “Front,” an approaching storm encroaches the Deer Island Thorofare Light, on Mark Island, off Stonington.

By Philip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston
From our August 2023 issue

The deeply indented Maine coastline — sliced through by dozens of rivers large and small, bathed by vigorous tides that traverse a complex variety of bottom substrates — presents an astoundingly diverse set of habitats for our coastal and offshore fisheries. More than 52 commercial species of fish, shellfish, worms, and seaweed are harvested here, with boats fishing out of more than a hundred harbors along Maine’s 5,000 miles of saltwater frontage.

Today, they’re a proud and defining characteristic of the coast, but Maine’s fisheries haven’t always been the dominant coastal activity. Until the beginning of the 20th century, lumber exports were the primary drivers of coastal wealth, with wooden shipbuilding also lucrative. Valuable cargoes of lime, granite, and ice were shipped from dozens of Maine’s harbors, adding to the coast’s economic diversity.

Beginning in the 1920s, an efficient new method of trawling with large nets greatly increased catches of cod, haddock, pollock, and hake, continuing until these resources were essentially exhausted from overfishing, by the 1980s. But, providentially, just as groundfish fleets were decimated, Maine’s lobster catch began increasing substantially — both in volume and value. Over the course of the last four decades, lobstering has become the economic underpinning for coastal communities from Kittery to Eastport.

No one knows whether the rapidly warming waters of the Gulf of Maine will spell the end of this era, when the lobster fishery dominated the Maine coast, but we do know that warming waters have resulted in the fishery’s collapse throughout southern New England. Lobster harvests have also declined along the southern Maine coast, while the center of lobster distribution has moved farther north and east.

The ecological diversity of the Gulf of Maine suggests there will always be marine resources of one species or another, new ways for us to take advantage of the legendary productivity of these waters. But it’s also likely that, in the future, more businesses along Maine’s working waterfronts will look to the potential of other resources.

In addition to its lobsters, the Gulf of Maine is a world-class wind resource. Senator Angus King once called it the “Saudi Arabia of wind.” Offshore wind developers, however, have struggled with the myriad technical challenges of developing floating platforms for Maine’s deep waters. The industry, if we can even call it that, has faced the further challenge of attracting deep-pocketed partners to invest the hundreds of millions required to finance the initial stages of development. Perhaps most dauntingly, offshore-wind proponents have confronted an increasingly bitter opposition from lobster harvesters.

Part of the passionate opposition of lobstermen to offshore wind results from the locus of lobster harvesting shifting from inshore to offshore waters. Offshore lobstering requires bigger boats, bigger gear, and higher risks for more reward. The collision between these interests is perhaps unavoidable. But to me, it is also sad. There’s such potential for Maine’s multiple maritime traditions, its men and women wedded to the sea, to play valuable roles in developing the industries of the future. Whether or not Mainers can agree if it’s in our best interests to welcome new offshore industries, one thing we know is that, for good and for ill, the winds will continue to blow. 

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

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