Maine’s Oldest Town Rallying Around Lobstermen

By D. Allan Kerr

David Kaselauskas, Betsy Wish, Charlene Hoyt

As Maine’s iconic lobster industry faces challenges to its very survival, the state’s oldest town is rallying behind the men and women fighting for their livelihoods.

A fundraising event called “Chowder’s On,” organized by three residents of Kittery, is planned for Feb. 26 at the Kittery Community Center with a lobster stew luncheon and live and silent auctions.

Proceeds from the event will go toward legal challenges to federal regulations intended to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which the lobster industry says instead endangers lobstermen who are already taking historic measures to accomplish the same goal.

Recent efforts by the state’s small but formidable Congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills resulted in a six-year hold on new rules to allow time for additional research to be considered.

The changes caused two environmental groups – Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch in California and the London-based Marine Stewardship Council – to each put the fishery on their “red list” of environmental ratings for the dangers they allegedly pose to the right whale. Downgrading the industry’s rating as a protector of right whales resulted in the Whole Foods supermarket chain’s decision to stop carrying Maine lobsters.

All this despite no death of a right whale ever being attributed to the state’s lobster fleet, according to the Save Maine Lobstermen campaign being conducted by the Maine Lobsterman’s Association.

The state’s lobstermen have been adapting their practices for decades to protect the right whale. Since 1997, Maine lobstermen have used weak links in their lines to make it easier for whales to break free after being caught in gear. Since 2002, they have marked gear for easier identification and traceability.

They began replacing floating lines in favor of whale-friendly sinking ground lines in 2009. They also have reduced vertical lines since 2015 by setting more traps to each buoy, with further reductions in 2021.

The industry continues to experiment with ropes and rigging enabling lobstermen and whales to thrive and develop tools to cut lines for entangled whales while continuing to haul their gear.

The Feb. 26 fundraising event in the seaside community has been organized by Kittery residents David Kaselauskas, a lobsterman for more than half a century; Charlene Hoyt, the mother and wife of local lobstermen; and Betsy Wish, a local artist whose affinity for lobstermen is so renowned it will be featured in a March 1 segment on New Hampshire Public Television.

Wish is known locally as the “kayaker with cookies,” a retired Massachusetts art teacher who routinely paddles in local waters with her canine companion Maggie and delivers homemade cookies to lobstermen and others. An upcoming episode of NHPTV’s “Windows to the Wild” filmed last summer follows her exploits and includes interviews with local lobstermen.

Last year, Wish released a cookbook entitled “Kittery’s Maine Ingredients” to commemorate Kittery’s 375th birthday. The volume includes photos, family anecdotes and lots of local history, as well as recipes dating to the 1600s.

“Our goal is to raise awareness for the challenges facing our lobster/fishing community while raising money for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association,” she said of the Feb. 26 event.

Kaselauskas, who has a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of New Hampshire, emphasizes “real data” has to be collected to write regulations not only to protect the right whale but also preserve the lobster industry. Current legislation does neither, he said.

Kaselauskas believes more empirical data needs to be collected to provide a clear picture of the right whale’s migration patterns. Industry leaders believe this is the actual reason for the creature’s diminished population in the region.

He wants to ensure Mainers truly understand the commercial fishery’s impact on the state’s way of life.

“The further we travel towards Eastport the greater the reliance there is on the lobster industry,” Kaselauskas said. “Ghost towns will be popping up along the coast with the collapse of the lobster industry.”

Kaselauskas likes to point out that manufacturers of rope, special break-away links, buoys and buoy sticks, bricks, netting, lobster trap wire and other components all rely on the harvesters of Homarus Americanus (aka the American Lobster.) Traps cost anywhere between $100 and $175, he noted, so someone purchasing 800 traps spends at least $80,000, plus roughly $15,000 for lines and buoys.

Those who fish for the bait placed in traps make up “a large industry in itself, millions earned,” he added. But getting bait to the boats requires transportation, dealers, waterfront facilities generating town revenue, refrigeration, salt, barrels, insurance, maintenance and “labor and more labor.”

“What is involved in the lobster industry is more than a guy and boat,” said Kaselauskas, who skippers the vessel Jersey Girl.

But that’s worth considering as well. Any action diminishing the lobster fleet also impacts those who build the boats, as well as those who operate boatyards where the boats are maintained, the marinas and moorings where the boats may tie up, those who fuel the boats, insure the boats, serve as crew and so forth, he said.

“Hopefully we catch a lobster and sell it to a dealer, who in turn can sell it to another dealer, sell it to a fish market, sell it to a restaurant, sell it to a processor, sell it to a foreign country,” Kaselauskas said.

This all requires transportation, either by road, rail or plane, as well as facilities and maintenance, Kaselauskas noted. This includes backup systems for potential power failures to ensure against the loss of thousands of dollars of live lobsters kept in tanks.

This doesn’t even take into account the boon in tourism from out-of-state visitors enthralled with the storied image of the Maine lobsterman, he said.

An economic impact report issued by Colby College in 2018 indicated the lobster industry contributes $1 billion to the Maine economy annually, supporting 4,000 jobs, not including the link to local restaurants and tourism. That’s before the value of 2021’s harvest shattered records by a whopping 75% increase over the previous year. More than 80% of America’s lobsters are caught in Maine.

So it was quite a slap in the face last year when Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council red-listed Maine’s lobster industry.

Kevin Kelley of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association said the group’s mission is to make sure “the rules are based on sound science and will actually protect the endangered whale without decimating this heritage industry,” he said.

Regulations intended by the U.S. government to reduce risks to the right whale by 60% were implemented last May. The recent hold on enforcement allows time for the industry to gather the information and prevents the government from imposing the harsher rules it was considering until at least December 2028,” he said.

As the association’s director of advancement leading fundraising efforts, including the Save Maine Lobstermen campaign, Kelley warns of the existential dangers posed by the new regulations impacting lobstermen.

“This is one of the most perilous moments ever faced by Maine’s lobster industry,” Kelley said. “But the six-year regulatory pause gives the industry a little bit of time and some hope that whatever rules are implemented by the federal government make sense.”

Follow D. Allan Kerr on Twitter @Sloth_Blog, Facebook and


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