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,
whos been lobstering the Atlantic for the last fifteen years, nudges
his boat from buoy to buoy, winching up his traps and inspecting their
contents. Its 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 G96, 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 Lobstermens 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 masters from UVMs 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 wasnt
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 shes 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 theres little about
New England fisheries these days thats 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 theyll
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 dont
know if it can do it again.
Maines 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. Theres so much science thats
so new when it comes to studying this fishery, Farrey says with
a laugh. Some days its up, some days its down. The short
answer is that nobody knows whats 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 Lobstermens position three years
ago. She admits to some trepidation in leaving Boston for the Maine coast.
Id met a lot of lobstermen through the work Id done
at the aquarium, but I wasnt sure how Id 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 Pats 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 youd
think these guys wouldve been going ballistic when Pat left and
I took over, but they didnt, she says. Theyre
grateful to have someone working for them. No matter what I do, if Im
called on the carpet for them, I know every single one of those guys is
going to support me.
Its a good thing to have friends when dealing with the hurly-burly
of fisheries. Its 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 thats
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.