The annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum was packed this year. For the first time in a long time, the Samoset Resort’s 178 guest rooms were sold out. It was as if fishermen, state agency folks and non-profit staff staged a reenactment of the green crab plague facing the lobster industry.

The Rockport Conference Room was similarly packed for the annual State of the Lobster Fishery address from the Department of Marine Resources. Among a crowd of industry leaders, Carl Wilson, the head of Maine’s Lobster Research, Monitoring, and Assessment Program, gave one of the most revealing presentations at the forum. He laid out the data behind something that fishermen have been experiencing all along Maine’s coast—a sense of uneven industry growth and economic benefit.

First, let’s cover the big numbers.

Maine lobstermen landed 125,900,000 pounds of lobster across the state’s working waterfronts this past year. This is down by 1.3 million pounds ifrom 2012, when the industry landed an all-time high 127,200,000 pounds of lobster.

The sustained high volume of landings has been cause for shock along the waterfront, along with relief that the value of these landings increased by $22,700,000 over 2013, when harvesters saw $364,518,515 for their catch. These estimates don’t take into consideration Maine lobster coop bonuses, estimated at an additional $14 million in the past year. A point of reference—1994 levels of abundance statewide were at 36 million pounds worth $107 million in value

One of Wilson’s key messages was, “Where you are in the state makes a huge difference in what you are seeing.” In 2000, fishermen in Zone A, from Canada to Schoodic Point, landed just under 5 million pounds. Fishermen in Zone E, from Pemaquid Point to Small Point near Bath, also landed just under 5 million pounds. 

Ready for it? This past year, Zone A fishermen landed 28 million pounds while Zone E harvesters landed 6 million pounds.

Zone A has seen astronomical increases in landings, up 23 million pounds while Zone E stayed relatively stable over the same time period. Layer price on top of this and you begin to see extreme divergences in the economic impact of the lobster industry from place to place.

In 2000, landings in Zone A were valued at $ 18 million while in Zone E landings were valued at $14 million. By last year, the value of Zone A landings skyrocketed to $73 million while Zone E fishermen brought home $18 million.

What does the future hold for lobstering communities along the coast of Maine? There is reason for concern. Multiple methods used to track the health of the lobster resource show that larval lobster settlement has been declining over the last three years. These lobsters should begin to reach legal size in the next three to four years since scientists estimate that it takes seven years for lobster to reach that size.

This data could foretell a major downturn in lobster landings, but again this decline is not likely to be evenly felt along the coast. The communities that have seen exponential growth in landings may experience significant declines.

Shell disease (unfortunately named because it looks bad but doesn’t affect lobster meat) also unevenly impacts lobstermen. Greater than 4 percent of lobsters to the west are found to have this characteristic while less than 1 percent of lobsters to the east have the disease.

The Maine Department of Marine Resource, led by Commissioner Patrick Keliher, is taking a forward-looking approach to this uncertainty. The department announced it will host discussions along the coast in the coming year to gather input for a new lobster fishery management plan. The importance of this work cannot be overstated. 

Beyond management, the uncertainty that lies ahead requires that we speak with force and clarity to potential threats to the health of the resource.

The Penobscot River closing is only the most recent cause for concern. The closure reminds us that past actions are impacting the health of our resources today. On top of this are the many questions from island communities and the lobster industry on the proposed dredge to expand access to Searsport Harbor. We need to better understand the toxicity of the proposed dredge spoils and how they could affect lobster populations at the proposed disposal sites in Pen Bay.

We also need to be on the lookout for options to diversify our working waterfront economies. If future projections play out, we could see significant declines in lobster stock abundance beginning in the next three to four years. This is just about the same amount of time it would take to diversify into shellfish or seaweed aquaculture businesses.

And as much as people might not want to think about tourism, it remains the major economic driver of the coast.

Over the past 30 years we have seen an extreme case of uneven development in the lobster industry, with eastern Maine seeing the vast majority of the benefit in recent years. We could see an equally uneven correction that reinforces the need to plan for the future, protect our environment, and work to diversify our fisheries economy.

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.