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Lobster Lobby
by Scott Sutherland, photograph by David A. Rogers

On a cool, breezy morning, the lobster boat Restless II slowly works the waters just beyond the southern Maine port of York Harbor. Pat White, who’s been lobstering the Atlantic for the last fifteen years, nudges his boat from buoy to buoy, winching up his traps and inspecting their contents. It’s slow today; the traps are mostly populated with undersized juveniles, lobsters too small for market. White plucks one out, its legs, claws and antennae waving, and gives it a quick look. “Not many keepers today,” he murmurs.

Instead of tossing it over the side, though, he hands the youngster to Patrice Farrey G’96, his boatmate for the morning. Farrey and White are a seasoned team on lobster matters — not so much on the water as in town halls and legislative chambers, the sorts of places where the future is being shaped for a fishing industry bound by tradition and challenged by contemporary economic and environmental issues. Farrey succeeded White last year as executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the first woman, and the first non-fisherman, to hold the top job in the 1,200-member trade organization.

White had hired Farrey, who earned her master’s from UVM’s School of Natural Resources, as associate director in 2000, and when he stepped aside after more than a decade as director, he championed her for the top spot. There was some grumbling among the membership that Farrey wasn’t “one of us,” but she set out to learn everything she could about lobsters, the lobster fishery, and lobstermen.

Part of that education includes sea sampling for the state of Maine, conducted from May to November, which is what she’s doing this morning. She records the vitals of every lobster that arrives onboard — length, weight, sex, general health. She pays particular attention to mature females, known as “eggers,” many of which are distinguished by the small v-shaped notches cut into their tails by lobstermen so that they can be quickly identified and allowed to swim free. Farrey studies the perky juvenile for a moment, takes a few quick notes, pronounces him healthy, and lobs him gently back into the dark green Gulf of Maine.

Farrey relishes her sea sampling trips, since there’s little about New England fisheries these days that’s either peaceful or bucolic. Regulations for groundfish like cod, haddock, and flounder have become increasingly restrictive over the past decade in an attempt to stabilize diminished fish stocks, but the rules have made it difficult for many fishermen to make a living off the sea. As people abandon groundfishing, Farrey says, more pressure will be put on the lobster fishery. “A lot of the groundfishermen hold lobster permits, too, and they’ll be forced to just lobster,” she warns. “When the last round of regulations came through in the mid-1990s, a lot of people moved over to lobstering and the fishery managed to somehow absorb them. I don’t know if it can do it again.”

Maine’s lobster fishery has been remarkably strong in recent years. In 2000, for example, nearly 57 million pounds was landed — more than twice the typical annual take in recent years — with a value of more than $186 million. Since then, one study after another has either predicted the imminent collapse of the fishery, or the promise of its continued good health. “There’s so much science that’s so new when it comes to studying this fishery,” Farrey says with a laugh. “Some days it’s up, some days it’s down. The short answer is that nobody knows what’s going to happen to it. All we know is that it would be terrible to lose it.”

Farrey grew up in Woburn, Massachusetts, and spent summers as a kid on the beaches of York, not far from where she cruises trap to trap with Pat White. After finishing college at the University of Maine, Peace Corps work in St. Lucia sparked her interest in environmental matters. “There were open pipes leading from the hotels on the beach right out into the ocean,” she recalls. “It made me think about the way we treat the environment in our own country.”

That spark would bring Farrey to UVM, where she says her program in natural resource planning “led me straight to lobsters.” She followed her passion for all things aquatic in her electives, many of which utilized Lake Champlain as both textbook and laboratory. She got her feet wet in salt water with internships in Maine, one with a marine debris reduction program based in Augusta and another working with the Downeast town of Machias to help it formulate a comprehensive plan.

Farrey was working in fisheries conservation for the New England Aquarium when White recruited her for the Lobstermen’s position three years ago. She admits to some trepidation in leaving Boston for the Maine coast. “I’d met a lot of lobstermen through the work I’d done at the aquarium, but I wasn’t sure how I’d be received coming into the organization,” Farrey says. Lobstering is a male-dominated business pursued by watermen who value nothing more than their independence, and who often regard change with some degree of suspicion. “It was a tough pill for some of them to swallow — I think some of the guys thought I was Pat’s secretary, even though they knew I was running around out on the water all the time.”

But White trusted her, she says, and supported her among the membership. It soon became clear among the rank-and-file that her detailed knowledge of marine policy and fishery regulations, and her willingness to fight for lobstermen, made her a valuable member of the organization. “Here I was, a little girl from the suburbs of Massachusetts, and you’d think these guys would’ve been going ballistic when Pat left and I took over, but they didn’t,” she says. “They’re grateful to have someone working for them. No matter what I do, if I’m called on the carpet for them, I know every single one of those guys is going to support me.”

It’s a good thing to have friends when dealing with the hurly-burly of fisheries. “It’s always contentious,” Farrey says, leavening the observation with her buoyant laugh. “All I know is that when I got to UVM I was a save-the-planet conservationist, and I never expected to be working for the industry side. Being in this position, though, you see where sometimes the conservationists take an approach that’s too narrow. The fishermen are always battling the environmentalists, and right now things have swung to the side of the environmentalists. There has to be a balance. I see the fishermen trying harder than they ever have before, yet their livelihoods are still threatened. It would be a great shame if that industry continues to slide. Maine would be a much lesser place for it.”