" Cousens has not yet called for lobstermen to drive a truck full of rotting lobsters to the White House and park it, but it may yet come to that. "
Lobsterman David Cousens, center, with two Canadian lobstermen (Photo Courtesy Melissa Waterman)
Lobsterman David Cousens, center, with two Canadian lobstermen (Photo Courtesy Melissa Waterman)
Lobster wars aren’t new.

In 2009, lobstermen on the outlying island of Matinicus made international news after taking up arms to defend their fishing grounds, but the real war on lobsters is less of a shoot-em-up-cowboy kind of deal and more like a cyber attack, according to lobster fisherman Dave Cousens, who has been fishing out of South Thomaston for 50 years.

You know it’s coming and you know it could grind the lucrative lobster fishing industry to a halt, you just don’t know when and you don’t know exactly where, said Cousens, who is the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, a professional group of active fishermen who push lobster policy, research, education, and marketing.

Cousens started fishing out of South Thomaston as a kid, paid for college hauling 300 traps using a small boat with an outboard, then opted to start lobstering full-time instead of becoming a teacher after graduating in 1980.

For the heck of it, Cousens started taking water temperature readings from the probe on the hull of his boat in 1981. This was before anyone talked about a warming climate except a handful of scientists. Scientists were just starting to talk about an ozone hole forming over Antarctica that was stripping away the earth’s sunscreen. The Rio Earth Summit on climate change that set the first international protocols for reducing carbon emissions was more than a decade away.

This was before anyone talked about sea-level rise related to global warming or the words “myth” and “climate change” were hooked together.

Cousens was just curious.

That is how he started an uninterrupted 36 years of collecting water temperature data in South Thomaston during the fishing season.

“I just started looking at the temperature probe every day I was out on the boat and wrote it down,” Cousens told a small gathering at the Wesaweskeag Historical Society in South Thomaston at the end of June.

Behind Cousens, grim-faced ancestors looked down from the walls at the glass-topped cases filled with curios from earlier maritime trades: a clunky sextant, hand scribbled pages and old photographs of schooners that once plied the coastal trade. The small room, the assortment of odd artifacts and the gathering of fifteen or so people on folding chairs in the plain building near the ’Keag store to hear an old salt was just the setting for a quaint summer story about lobstering.

But here is the real story: Maine’s lobster industry is big business. It is second in importance to the state economy after tourism, bringing in $1.5 billion a year. Maine fishermen provide 88% of all lobsters nationally, and many of those lobsters are part of a global trade — with 15 to 20 percent of the Maine catch being shipped to Europe. Much of what isn’t sold fresh out of the pot at a wharf-side picnic table with slaw and cob corn is shipped live in a cold pack to someplace like Saudi Arabia, or to Canada for canning and freezing before ending up as an appetizer in Bonn or Shanghai.

The local ancestors could tell today’s fishermen a thing or two about the boom-and-bust nature of making a living on Maine’s coast in a global trade. Granite, limestone, sardines: they all soared and they all crashed.

And there aren’t many around who know the Maine lobster fishing industry better than Dave Cousens.

So, when Cousens lays down a solid argument for why the lobster boom that has made fishermen’s fortunes over the past two decades happened and why lobstermen and the rest of us need to act to keep the industry from being wiped out, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s worth listening to.

Cousens started recording temperatures off the hull of his fishing boat in 1981. Lobstering was a pretty stable living at that time, but no one was getting rich.

“In the early 1980s, the water temperature was below 60 degrees all summer,” said Cousens. “It was between 57 and 58 degrees.”

That was also about the time marine scientists were talking about a potential lobster fishing crash. It turns out the data they were collecting was incomplete, something they started to realize when the University of Maine hired marine scientist Bob Steneck, an enthusiastic marine explorer and an experienced diver.

Cousens, who shares Steneck’s enthusiasm for knowledge, pushed Maine Lobstermen’s Association members to stop fighting with scientists who studied lobster and start working with them, instead. They did.

Working with lobstermen up and down the coast, Steneck found abundant baby lobsters crawling around the bottom, indicating that a new generation of one-pounders was coming down the line.

At the same time that lobstering was starting to warm up, so was the water.

By the early 1990s the probe on the hull of Cousens’ boat registered above 60 degrees for three to four weeks every summer and lobster fishing had gone from a stable 20 to 25 million pounds in the ‘80s to record catches. In 1996, Maine lobstermen brought in 60 million pounds.

Other things started noticeably changing in the mid-1990s, too, according to Cousens.

“Up until then, you could set your calendar on the date the shedders would start,” he said, referring to the soft-shell lobsters that form a new shell after shedding thier old, hard one. The meat is sweeter and leaner than that of hard-shell lobsters, and the shells easier to crack, but the lobsters are also more fragile. They don’t live as long.

“They would show up between July 17 and July 19 every year,” said Cousens. By the mid-1990s, they were showing up earlier.

Meanwhile, cod, lobster’s main predator, had disappeared from the scene, partially as a result of overfishing. Starfish were becoming rare, too; so were sculpins and sea urchins. The mussel beds Cousens knew as a child were gone. It could be the temperature. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any ocean on earth. It could be that Penobscot Bay is 20 times more acidic than it was a half century ago, said Cousens. It could be both.

But lobsters were thriving. There seemed no end in sight to record-busting catches; they went up and up and up, according to Cousens.

In the early 2000s, Maine lobstermen landed 90 million pounds. In 2012, they landed 121 million pounds — twice what they had caught 15 years earlier.

An odd thing happened that year, too: lobstermen hauled in a glut of early-season shedders in May 2012.

It was too early. There was no tourist market, dealers were paying rock-bottom prices and the Canadian freezing and packing plants weren’t operating so early in the season. Maine had little or no lobster packing plants left. Tractor-trailers full of soft-shell lobsters rotted near the U.S.- Canada border crossings when Canada refused entry.

In all, five million pounds of shedders came ashore and no one wanted them.

By then, though, the lobster boom was full on and young lobstermen were buying $800,000 boats to fish 30 to 40 miles offshore, out for days at a time, and some of them were dragging $75,000 annual bait bills along for the ride, according to Cousens.

Last summer, Dave Cousens was pretty intent on those temperature readings from the hull of his boat. For almost three and a half months, the ocean temperature was over 60 degrees off South Thomaston, with an average temperature reading for the season around 62 to 63 degrees — something absolutely unheard of when Cousens started fishing in the 1980s.

You know that feeling when you are running with the tide in a small boat, just flying along, but the seas are rising from a coming storm and getting close to the gunwales? It’s exhilarating. The boat is just flying, but that water is starting to slop in over the sides, too.

That pretty much sums up where the lobster industry is right now: flying in advance of an approaching hurricane, according to Cousens, with some lobstermen thinking maybe the Lucky Sevens will just keep right on rolling and no bill due.

Cousens is not betting on luck. He relies on the science and on his own observations over a lifetime of fishing and studying the lobster industry in Maine and around the world. The bill is already past due, said Cousens, and the time to act is now.

“Sixty to 64 degrees is the sweet spot for larval lobster,” said Cousens. “Sixty-six to 67 degrees is the threshold for larva.”

“In 2016, the state brought in 131 million pounds of lobster,” said Cousens. And last summer’s temperatures in South Thomaston waters was near the top of the sweet: 63 degrees.

At 68 degrees average ocean water temperatures, the big boats and big mortgages and fishing towns and underwater lobster landscape and lobster economy could come crashing down, according to Cousens. All of it. Another bust and this time ecosystem-wide.

Cousens is calling on fishermen to speak out in favor of the U.S. involvement in reducing carbon emissions and signing on to the Paris climate agreement.

“We should be talking about solar, about wind, about energy conservation,” he said. “Hell, we should probably even be talking about nuclear before we’re through.”

He wants lobstermen to make a stink about climate change that is bigger than those semi-trucks full of rotting lobster; big enough so they smell it in Augusta where no research and development money is forthcoming for the industry, said Cousens, and big enough so they can smell the stink on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Cousens has not yet called for lobster fishermen to drive a truck full of rotting lobsters to the White House and park it at Lafayette Square, but it may yet come to that.

“Sometimes people will listen to farmers and fishermen when they won’t listen to anyone else,” he said.