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EDITORIAL: A cause for celebration amid causes for concern

Far be it from us to find the dark cloud in an otherwise silver lining …

… But, as word spread around the recent Maine Fishermen’s Forum of record-breaking landings in the state again last year, the excitement was somewhat tempered.

The news was good, for sure, particularly for the booming lobster fishery.  Huge landings and exceptionally strong prices.  Hard to find fault with that.

What struck us however, in the course of many conversations over the forum weekend, was an overwhelming sense of concern.

Concern that this prolonged period of prosperity in the fishery may actually be having some negative impacts on coastal communities.

And concern that early signs of an impending slowdown in the fishery are being ignored.

A school teacher stopped by our booth to thank us for sending a few copies of Commercial Fisheries News each month to get circulated among his students.

Asked what the kids liked to read, he said, “Oh, they don’t read the paper.  Mostly they just look at the photos.  Especially the boats.”

He then shared a recent exchange with a student who clearly has subpar reading skills, but is counting the days until he’ll be out on the water tending his own gear.

“I asked him (the student) how he was ever going to run a business, do his taxes, stay on top of changing regulations,” the teacher said.

“His answer:  ‘I’ll hire somebody to do that stuff.’”

It is that sense of entitlement and utter faith that the good times will last forever, particularly among younger folks, that has seasoned veterans worried.

Then there’s the money.

Ungodly amounts of cash – $63 million across the docks in Stonington alone last year.  And where is it all going?

New boats.  New trucks.  All good.

But then there are the persistent rumors of a dramatic spike in illicit drug use, hard drugs, in many coastal communities.

And if lobster-borne prosperity has a dark side, many feel this is it.

We are not going to jump on the “sky is falling” train.

But there is no denying how dependent everyone associated with commercial fishing in Maine has become on a single species and a notoriously cyclical fishery.

More than 80% of the state’s total landings last year came from lobsters.

And while price was strong, there are already indictors that warm waters in the Gulf of Maine may precipitate an early spring run of shedders this year, raising hell with the markets.

We need not look back very far to recall how a season of poor boat prices impacts fishermen and coastal communities across the state.  That’s if landings hold up, and there’s no guarantee of that.

There is also cause for concern regarding the state’s second largest fishery, the softshell clam industry.

A significant spike in market price benefitted the fishery greatly last year.  But landings were down, significantly, amid worries that ocean acidification may damage this vital nearshore resource.

What does this say for the future of Maine’s shellfish industry?  The answer is, nobody really knows.

So what is the takeaway here?

A good question and one that we have been pondering since the forum.

In our view, we should celebrate the unprecedented wealth that is being generated by Maine’s commercial fisheries.

Those revenues are being reinvested in our coastal communities and the many, many businesses who serve our industry.

There’s no crime in making money.

But we should also be wary.

Invest wisely and instill in our children life skills that will sustain them through the good times … and the bad.

Enjoy the party – but try not to wake up with a nasty hangover.  /cfn/.

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