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Changing Tides : A new blog post on the marine environment written by USRESIST NEWS Reporter Katherine Cart

 

# 3  Fishing Boat Dispatch

 

March 26, 2021

Walk to Maine’s midcoast and look southwest. Unless you’ve gotten yourself in a spruce thicket, you will see Atlantic water filling the hole that is the Gulf of Maine. Likely, you will hear the sea, smell it, be standing in its sandy refuse. It will very possibly feel colder – or at least damper – here than a mile inland. Chilled oceanic air is sucked landwards, dumping sludgy precipitation, heaping fog, painting rime on roof, pine, window pane, dune hollow. A weathered-in gulf can be, to the casual observer, somewhat benign, rather like watching on a TV screen an avalanche shift some unpopulated mountain. Storms are spectacular to witness from the beaches, nasty to endure offshore. Inland Maine is a stronghold well protected from tidal degradation by granitic coastline, carved out over several millennia by the heaving of the Laurentide ice sheet over Appalachian stone. If you are standing at the coast and look down, between your feet you will see the long lateral scratches the Laurentide left, sloughing southwest into the sea. One cannot help but to think of fingernails, and a general determination to cling on.

I am a deckhand on a Maine lobster boat. We fish out of Bailey Island, in Casco bay, where the Atlantic can roll storms that break the shore rocks. The coastline, though mightily old, is still changing. Islands degrade by bits. The wind in the Gulf of Maine whips from the planar globe storm swells that feel sentient in their hostility. Like an obnoxious housecat, the wind comes and goes, hisses at you for no good reason. It will outlast us.

Yesterday, fishing offshore, the shaft of our old 40 foot Novi cracked. In the hour that we waited for a good samaritan to finish hauling his own strings and snag us for a tow to land, we were pushed by the wind against an outgoing tide nearly one mile towards Small Point, and began taking on a little water. Not too much. Enough to notice. Over the radio another captain warned: “supposed to breeze up.” We were lucky – yesterday was the first true day of warmth offshore. The wind, though sustained, was mild compared to the winter blows we’ve sat out or – miserably – fished through. It was a glorious day. A good day to be on the water. A good day to ride the bow, toss lines, catch a ride, if we must.

Twenty-eight miles northeast of us, eighty lobster boats congregated at Monhegan Island. In single file, they traced the path of the proposed underwater cable that would link a future 12 megawatt wind turbine to South Boothbay, linking offshore wind energy to the main power grid. This seabed path, since the beginning of March, has been under survey by research vessels. Lobstermen out of Friendship, Monhegan, Bristol, Boothbay and other port towns have experienced disruptions in set strings of traps, feel that the proposed wind turbine is a threat to current and future livelihood. I’ve experienced snarled and cut strings – detangling hundreds of pounds of lobster trap and line is hellacious, time-consuming, dangerous and costly. Another boat’s gear can be caught up, a string set over another by accident. Frustration is standard fare in lobstering. And while such frustrations are an expected, though unwelcome, part of the job, one does not relish the idea of an outside source – say, research vessels with no traps or profit to lose – causing further gear-loss. Tangled gear costs money. Time costs. Such aggravation is sapping in an already tiring day.

The intended wind turbine does not immediately impact the waters that I fish in. Talk in Mackerel Cove, where I dock, hasn’t yet focused on wind energy, though the issue has gained central focus in the Maine Lobsterman’s Association Newspaper, which my captain brings to the boat and does not read. As a sternwoman, however, I feel the shuddering brace of the Maine lobstering community. Pulling wildlife from the ocean is a volatile vocation. This year, nearly every boat I knew of turned to pig hide for baiting: sandfleas, which prosper in warming waters, were cleaning traps of the standard baitfish before lobsters could wander their dim demersal way through trap kitchen to parlor. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of all global waters. American lobster are susceptible to infinitesimal changes in water temperature; in the larval stage, they can expire en masse, and as adults, shell disease, which appears like rot on the carapace, proliferates in warmer waters. Day after day last fall, we hauled empty traps. When I was given my 1099 last month, my captain looked at my total revenue: “should have been twice that.”

I have only lobstered since August and have no real dog in this fight. I have no payments to make on a boat, no family to support, no children who expect to apprentice under me, gain a captain’s license, buy their own vessel. The patterns of the day (up at 3:00 am, on the water by 5:00 am, hauling, hauling, reeking of ripe fish, ludicrously worn-out, docked by evening), however, are appealingly forthright. That women and men fish lobster their entire lives does not surprise me. These are hard, honest days.

In college, I interned with Aqua Ventus’s VolturnUS 1:8, the pilot wind project deployed by the University of Maine in 2013 near Castine, ME. (I spent, on average, an hour a day for a year and a half clicking through stilled images of the bobbing, yellow VolturnUS 1:8 turbine, watching for bird strikes and any evidence of detriment to marine life – I saw none.) During that time, former Maine Governor Paul LePage discouraged Statoil’s proposed $120 million Maine offshore wind project by reopening state waters to potential wind investors. Statoil has since relocated its investment to Scottish waters, and in 2017 began successfully producing energy. In May of 2014, Aqua Ventus was awarded just $3 million of the $47 million the project was hoping for in federal support. Four years later, as offshore wind energy in Maine again began gaining momentum, LePage ordered a moratorium on the development, citing potential risk to Maine’s tourism economy. It has not been an easy ride for wind power investors with sights on the gulf. Incidentally, LePage was the sole Atlantic Coast governor to support the former president Trump’s 2018 proposed “Outer Continental Shelf Draft Proposed Oil and Gas Leasing Program,” which would have opened Maine waters to oil drilling. Now, Maine Governor Janet Mills supports Gulf of Maine wind power. She has opened conversations with the Maine lobstering community and issued a ten-year moratorium on wind projects within three miles of the mainland and inhabited Maine Islands, excluding the Monhegan Island project. Today, that project is using the technology of the floating VolturnUS 1:8 scale pilot turbine. There is no doubt of the potential benefit for Maine energy consumers and job seekers.

These two perspectives have split for me an uncanny rift. The coastal strip that is the lobstering community is a Maine symbol. That it might face its end within my lifetime is wrenching. Fishing communities are so entrenched that peninsula-dwellers speak with unique accents; of the man who towed us ashore yesterday, my captain said: “well, it’s not strong, but he’s sure got the Small Point accent.” Small Point is seven miles as the crow flies from Mackerel Cove. Fishing is, perhaps, the most deeply generational tradition we have in our country. These are lifestyles passed hand over hand like line to kin. There is a romance to lobstering; even the casual observer, those who watch us fish through blows from the safety of shore, cannot deny that.

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you support renewable energy. I do. I have. I will. In my logical brain, I support wind energy in the Gulf of Maine, whatever it may mean for the lobstering community. And to be clear: nobody seems particularly certain what impact wind energy might have on the lobstering community. It is the unknown, yet visible (climate change, unfortunately, is less acutely so), that has piqued fear. Logic aside, in my gut I, too, fear for those few whose children are fed, clothed, housed, by what is pulled from wind power’s path. I worry for my captain, and his son who is one of the fastest sternmen in the cove. To lobster is to both slow time’s twist towards frenzy and to put your eye to the speeding time-keeper that is the warming, shifting Atlantic. I mourn the ending of things as they are.

Changing oceanic ecosystems will bring the end of Maine lobstering before wind power ever does. Of that I am certain. But for those fishing families who feel the acute pinch of wind development already – what comfort does the broader strokes of future history bring?

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