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Business and Economy

Years Of High Lobster Landings Spark Resurgence In Maine’s Boat Building Industry

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Mike Light of Light's Fiberglass in Steuben next to the wheel of a recently completed 50-foot lobster boat.

A lobsterman’s biggest expense is the boat.

Analysts say Maine’s boat-building industry has made a remarkable recovery since it bottomed out during the Great Recession of 2008, when many of the state’s boat builders, including Young Brothers Boats of Corea, decided to get out of the business.

Inside Mike Light’s boat shop in Steuben, a 44-foot Calvin Beal lobster boat is getting a major face-lift that its owner hopes will keep him fishing for another 6-10 years. The seas take a toll on these hardworking vessels, and when the time comes for repairs, Light says, some fishermen are choosing to upgrade.

“People are going bigger because people are getting driven outside, people are driven to do trawls and you need bigger boats to be able to fish that way, and so, you know, it’s funny — everybody’s going bigger,” he says.

Bigger is definitely something Travis Perry had in mind as he took the wheel of his 50-footer in Milbridge this week, which Light had just finished to Perry’s specifications.

Absent the steering wheel, the boat’s wheelhouse looks more like a small television studio, with flat-panel video screens that Perry says will allow him to monitor what’s going on above, below and even over the sides of the vessel.

“My grandfather would have been crazy over it — they had old flashers and a number machine and a chart,” he says. “This stuff nowadays is unbelievable — cameras in the engine room.”

The resurgence of lobster boat building has been propelled by back-to-back banner years that have seen lobster landings exceed 120 million pounds annually. Prices at the dock have also risen and increased the annual value of the lobster catch to more than $500 million in 2015 and 2016.

This year may not measure up to those numbers, due to a late start to the season attributed to colder-than-normal water temperatures, and builders disagree on what that will mean for new orders.

Light says it could be a bad omen.

“The price is down now, the catch isn’t as good right now and I think it’s hard to tell where that’s going to put the boat building industry,” he says. “It might help make people realize how quickly it can go bad and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of my orders come off the board.”

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Stewart Workman checks out the deck work underway for a new 45-foot Young Brothers boat.

But 25 miles west of Light’s shop, Stewart Workman is fielding telephone calls from anxious buyers at his SW Boatworks in Lamoine. He agrees with Light’s assessment of the current catch, but not necessarily with how that will effect future boat orders.

“New sales has been a little slow,” he says. “It’s usually slow during the summer, but I am anticipating it to pick up a little bit. Everyone’s busy out fishing and they don’t have time to think about a new boat or a bigger boat. We do have a pretty good backlog right now that’s holding us, but we’re going to stay optimistic at this point in time.”

Both Light and Workman know well the ups and downs of the lobster business, and of boat building. Both starting working back in the 1980s at Young Brothers Boats in Corea, which built more than 500 vessels until it closed its doors seven years ago.

Young Brothers boats have their design origins in Jonesport and Beals, the home of legendary boat builders Wayne Beal, his brother Calvin Beal Jr. and Calvin’s brother-in-law, Ernest Libby Jr.

Workman ultimately purchased the molds used to build the Beal and Young Brothers boats, and is working on a 45-foot Young Brothers boat that will be powered to exceed 30 knots.

Colby Young — the only survivor of the three brothers who founded the company — isn’t surprised to see his creations making a comeback.

“They’re a good combination boat, they make a good pleasure boat, which we build several of them and is what Stewart is doing with them now,” Young says. “There’s some boats that roll more than what our boat did. Ours might be a little quicker but all in all, they was a very safe boat to work with. It does give you a little pride to know that you made a difference.”

Although there are dozens of lobster boat finishers in Maine, Jon Johansen of the Maine Built Boats marketing firm estimates that there are fewer than 20 companies that still manufacture the fiberglass hulls for all of them.