Lobstermen all along the coast are worried about the possibility of this year’s lobster harvest dipping below last year’s, which was the fourth year of a slide from the peak, prompting fears the trend would continue.

That worry is why downeast lobstermen are putting their traps in later this year, and why many curtailed their season last year, said Mike Dassatt of Belfast, lobsterman and secretary/treasurer of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association (DELA).

Even though last year’s landings were still nearly triple the historic average of 20 million pounds for lobster catches, for several years in the 1990s, landings had risen steadily, peaking in 2003 at a historic 90 million pounds. Last year, the harvest dropped from 73 million pounds in 2006 to 56 million pounds.

Now it’s not just the prospect of another, perhaps slight, dip in landings but the skyrocketing cost of bait and fuel for the boats, coupled with prices that are not rising.

“I don’t think the lobster resource is in such bad shape,” said Dassatt, who has been lobstering for 24 years, now fishing his Jonesport-style lobster boat SARAH LOUISE out of Belfast. “It’s the operating costs that are making it hard.”

Many DELA members who usually fish six months, fished only for four last year, Dassatt explained. “The year-rounders only fished six to eight months.” Many who usually go out early, hadn’t gone out by early June.

“Unfortunately, many people are quick to think gloom and doom,” Dassatt said. “We try to really understand where things are headed.” He remembers hauling 250 traps a day in the 1980s and “being happy if I got 100 pounds.” Then in the 1990s, catches picked up, but in the past two years “it’s slowed down, now it’s about a 3/4-pound average.”

But the worries are all-pervasive this year, added Sheila Dassatt, executive director of DELA, who says many fishermen’s wives are calling her, saying: “What are we going to do? When they say ‘we’,” said Sheila, “That ‘we’ is all of us.”

DELA was formed in October 1991 to address the specific needs and concerns of lobstermen fishing a unique area, and to reflect their principles, Sheila said. Downeast fishing communities are close-knit, she points out, despite rivalries between basketball teams and such.

“We’re all in it. Our officers are all in it, we live it. We don’t hire anyone from outside,” said Sheila. Many downeast  families are multi-generational fishermen. Her family on both sides have been fishermen, hailing for many generations from Isle au Haut and Merchant Island. Her brothers are the fourth generation in her family to run Holland’s Boat Shop in Belfast. Naturally, they build lobster boats.

Some of the impetus to start DELA came from the divergence in the trap numbers fished in different regions and the impact the state’s trap limit had on fishing. There was a lot of rivalry between guys fishing a lot of gear and guys fishing lower numbers of traps, said the Dassatts.

“And one organization, like the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, can’t represent everyone because the state has several areas of diversity,” said Mike. “Here it’s more likely to be a way of life, not just a business.”

Although DELA started in Zone A, Jonesport-Beals Island, some of the members now come from southern Maine, or “the west’ard” and some are members of both DELA and MLA. They even boast a few members from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“They called Casco Bay the ‘Bay of Pigs’ there were so many traps in the water,” said Mike. “When the trap limit came in, guys still had all the gear, so they just bought new boats and hired someone to run them. The effect was more fishermen and more traps in the water, not fewer. It affected us downeast as well. A lot of rules that came with the trap reductions fueled a lot of tensions.

“We had a boom over 10 years,” said Mike. “Guys went out and bought new boats, lived beyond their means, thinking the pots of gold would never go dry. I don’t think if people have put themselves under a financial burden that everyone else should be affected by their problems.”

Downeast fishermen and therefore, DELA, are more conservative, said the Dassatts.

“We are family and tradition-oriented. We’re involved in trying to have common-sense rules. We want rules that are feasible, enforceable and manageable. And, we see the value of budgeting and being independent, so if times get tough, you can still survive.”

They are concerned not just about economic survival, but literal survival, because for many fishermen, in tough times, the first thing to go is boat maintenance.

“For us, the first thing we cut is food. We take care of the boat first,” said Sheila.

They also see a real overlap between lobstermen and independent truckers who are facing the same  rising fuel costs and other similar challenges.

“When they changed the laws affecting independent truckers in 1986, instead of 10 questions to get a permit, you had to answer 100 questions that included safety and handling hazardous materials. Education included defensive driving and truckers were subjected to random drug testing. Logbook recording was made more stringent and enforced,” said Sheila. She and Mike both hold commercial driver’s licenses and think these safety precautions are a good thing.

“There are safety courses out there for fishermen and I think everyone should take them,” said Sheila. “They’re required now only for offshore permits and apprentices.”

“Besides,” Mike added. “If you take care of the boat, it’s well-maintained and clean, the Coast Guard checks will be quick. If it’s a mess and you’re leaving an oil slick, expect to be brought back to port.”

He recommends teaching kids in high school the basics of economic survival, as a faculty member in the Stonington-Deer Isle school system is doing – offering a work-study program to help potential dropouts who plan to be lobstermen.

“They need to be taught responsibility and economics,” said Mike,  pointing out there are many lobstermen who have no mortgages on their boats and they’re doing fine, even in the reduced fishery.  

DELA has offered a boat safety seminar. Members take university students out to conduct bait research and the organization works closely with the Lobster Institute. DELA has 14 directors and meetings are held at Jasper’s Restaurant in Ellsworth on the second Thursday of the month.

“We don’t move it around. All members are invited to speak and make suggestions. It’s a real democracy,” said Mike. “I’d rather have 300 members who are serious about their fishing and the industry as I am, than a bigger group who just want a bumper sticker and don’t want to do anything.”

DELA also publishes a newsletter for its roughly 350 members and charges $80 annual dues, has a new “Friends of DELA” membership category, and offers a half-price discount for members over 70. And there are plenty of old-timers, including Corliss Holland, 84, a.k.a. “The Red Baron” (also the name of his lobster boat). He also happens to be Sheila’s father. The Dassatts spent Father’s Day on his boat, watching him put traps in the water.

“I feel so passionate about the old-timers,” said Sheila. “Ivan Arey is 92. He was fishing when I was a little girl. Andy Gove is 78, still fishing 800 traps. Some of the older fishermen have a hard time with some of the new rules. It’s hard to see, because they did their part to build up this fishery.”

“When the government kept putting new regulations on the groundfishermen, they kept changing them and they didn’t deal with the fishermen using a common-sense approach,” said Mike. “Where are they now?

“There’s a hundred ways you can look at the lobster fishery and resources,” he added. “The bottom line is you must have principles, realistic ideas and total communication. We believe in what we’re doing.”