Maine Lobstermen's Association President Dave Cousens has watched the industry grow over nearly 30 years. "You know, it's like rolling Lucky Sevens going into a casino," he says. "I mean, we've been doing everything good, and everything's happened right with the environment for the last 20 years. Things are now probably going to go the other way." Cousens announced his retirement earlier this month and will hand off the baton at this weekend's Fisherman's Forum, in Rockport. Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz caught up with Cousens to discuss his years at the helm of one of Maine's most prominent industries.
GRATZ: How did you get into lobstering to start with?
COUSENS: I always loved it when I was a kid because I live on the ocean and I had an outboard and traps, and I'd lobstered through junior high and high school and college. I put myself through college lobstering, and when I got out of college I decided I'd probably go lobstering - [rather] than teaching - and so I started full time in 1980.
GRATZ: And then shortly thereafter became part of the Lobstermen's Association. Tell us how that happened.
COUSENS: Well, at the time, the dealers in Maine thought they were at a disadvantage because they couldn't sell oversized lobsters from Canada, and we couldn't legally keep them because it was a conservation measure. And I just, on my own, had read in the paper that they were discussing it. So I went to Augusta to lobby against it. I'd never done that before, but I just thought it was the right thing to do. And I met Jack Merrill up there who was handing out flyers, and talked to him and started talking to legislators. And then Ed Blackmore - I met him and he was the president of the Lobsterman’s Association at the time, and he decided that I should at least join the association. And the rest is kind of history. I joined it, and I think it was ‘83, ’84. And by ‘89 he was deciding to step down and I became vice president. And then in ‘91 when he stepped down, I became president and Pat White became executive director, because it was growing at that time and it was too much for one person to do both the business end of it and the political end of it. So, I said I'll do the political end and Pat was going to do the business end.
GRATZ: You know, it is a rather remarkable rise in the landings that has occurred over the decades. What accounts for that?
COUSENS: Two things, I think: conservation ethics that we put in as lobstermen, and the environment that enabled a lot more survivability of the lobsters.
GRATZ: What about the issues that lobstermen and the association have faced - how have they changed over the years?
COUSENS: When I first became president, I said, ‘We're not going to have adversarial roles with science. We're going to work with science. We’re going to embrace science.’ And we've dealt with trap limits. We've dealt with gauge increases. We've dealt with increased vent sizes. We've done promotion. And lately, we've been dealing with whales.
GRATZ: Well, we'll talk more about that in a minute. But you were saying that one of the things that you've been doing is trying to work with scientists, and of course one of the things scientists are documenting now is that the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming parts of the ocean. Is that something that should worry lobstermen?
COUSENS: Absolutely. I mean there's no question the Gulf is warming. I mean, when I first started fishing, if we saw water temperatures in the middle of summer over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it was amazing. It’s probably changed three or four degrees, and that three or four degrees from 40 years ago to present enabled the fishery to expand to the level it is. But going forward it's going to be a detriment to the fishery. As you look to the south of us the commercial fishery below Cape Cod is non-existent. My co-op, in Spruce Head, landed more lobsters than Connecticut and Long Island Sound, where there used to be 30 million pounds of lobsters. So, climate change has benefited us for the last 20 years - it's going to be a hindrance coming up. You know, it's like rolling Lucky Sevens going into a casino. I mean, we've been doing everything good, and everything's happened right with the environment for the last 20 years. Things are now probably going to go the other way. I mean, we're not going to keep having record years because, you know, the water temperature is now getting to a point where it could be a problem. Scientists have told us over the last four or five years that the settlement [of larval and juvenile lobsters] that they track on bottom has been declining. So that would tell you that we're probably going to have decreased landings coming up.
GRATZ: All right. Let's go back to that topic of right whales. Scientists are increasingly worried about their status. How is conservation of the right whales going to affect lobstermen?
COUSENS: We don't know how it's going to affect us. Obviously, the conservation people are pushing for rope-less fishing. We’re not going to be rope-less fishing, but we're going to be doing something to lessen the risk of entanglement for right whales. As an industry we're going to have to deal with it.
GRATZ: Well, we’ve talked about some of the challenges going forward. Are there others that we haven't discussed yet?
COUSENS: So, lobstering took a double hit this year. Not only did we get less for the product, but got less landings to sell. That's not sustainable if that keeps up. Hopefully the price will rebound, the catch will stabilize - or not drop at 15 or 20 percent a year - because it doesn’t take too many years before you’re in deep trouble. Our business is based on high volume. If things change that way, we're going to have to change the way we do business.
GRATZ: The lobstermen, as is true for the entire state, are aging. Are there going to be enough people getting into the business?
COUSENS: That's why we have an open access fishery. Twenty-five percent of the lobstermen in Maine are under 25 years of age. So that's a good thing. And, yes, the average age of lobstermen, I think, in Maine is in the 50s, which is, you know, pretty old. So that tells you in probably 10 to 15 years there are going to be a lot less lobstermen than there are today.
GRATZ: All right, Dave Cousens, what are you going to do once you're done running the Lobstermen's Association?
COUSENS: I'll have to fish harder! I'll have more time to spend with the grandkids and, hopefully, maybe do some trout fishing.
GRATZ: All right Dave, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.
COUSENS: Yup, no problem.
Dave Cousens is the retiring president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. The association held its annual meeting Friday morning at the Fishermen's Forum in Rockport.