Life Downeast

A paler shade of red?

A boat moored to holy ground waits, then waits some more. Traps on the hard remember old days and old ways. Fishing gear hangs in closets, basements and garages. The gulls are silent for they have no one to talk to. Painted buoys age dull in bright sunlight as a day begins silently on wharves Downeast.


Since I was a young boy my favorite color has been blue. Today, red is the color that saturates my view and that of an entire Downeast community. In schools, restaurants and businesses everyone is donning red in support of the lobstermen and women who work these waters. It is yet another example of how this community comes together when one of their own needs help.

After a federal court loss, Sea Watch having red listed lobster and plans for additional federal regulations, Maine’s lobster industry is reeling. Add to that the exorbitant cost of fuel this past summer, bait shortages and low market prices for a catch worth $125 million just a year ago in Washington County alone, one would think this fishery is down for the count.

Yet the fishery continues to invest in its sustainability while continuing practices to curtail any chance of a life-threatening interaction with the North Atlantic right whale. And with its appeal in federal court being upheld, the Maine lobster fishery will continue to still be heard.

Confounding to me are the federal organizations trying to protect one life while not hearing the voice of another way of life. It is — if all are being honest — the premeditated demise of one life for another. And all of it based on circumspect data. The last documented entanglement of a right whale in Maine waters occurred in 2004.

Aggressive off shore fishing regulations — including seasonal closures, a significant decrease in the number of traps per fisherman, to ropeless traps — impact everyone who makes a living on the water. It truly is a domino effect. With these proposed regulations, smaller areas of water will become congested, causing working wharves to be inundated with fishermen needing to fish closer to shore, to make a living.

One would think before life-altering decisions are made that due diligence would include quality time spent in this Maine place — not from afar with charts and graphs. This should be the least owed to those who live and work these waters. Real decisions impact real lives.

Picture blue water in summer staying blue. No longer punctuated by a rainbow of bold colors, striped and tagged with a personal note attached — a love letter of tradition — from a fisherman to family, to a community. What are traditions if they are not met by a longing to preserve their intent, their purpose, to maintain a livelihood that sustains a family for generations?

We share this planet with many living creatures. No one wants to wipe out any species, let alone the whales that dot these waters They, too, bring revenue to the shore by way of tourism, bring smiles to faces drenched in sea spray as cameras point into the blue in hopes of catching a glimpse of fin, tail or a gentle roll by these gigantic gifts.

The Maine fishermen know how not to spite the very place they work. Efforts from all fishermen and women here in Maine have proven this place is indeed holy ground, like the home they leave every morning to the boat they step onto. The diesel smell pulsates through the air, through hardened veins and the deepest of hearts. They know they share the waters with other lives.

Miles of floating rope have been replaced by sinking rope; weak links were added to trap gear; more traps are fished per single buoy line and gear are marked for better traceability. All of these efforts illustrate the fact that the life of one species can improve while sustaining that of another.

I have a soft spot in my heart for those who ply the waters to put food on our table. They make a living doing what generations before them have done. Their boats that ply these waters are ornaments on a tapestry of hard work, perseverance and a deep respect to a sea that both gives and takes. And the sea does take.

Memorials to those lost doing what they love run up and down the coast. The gulls float above their memories on ribbons of air. Their legacy and the future for those who want to fish, all amidst a Downeast place that needs them to fish and harbors it all, must endure.

© RJ Heller 2022

community | Downeast | fisherman | fisherwoman | fishing | heritage | lobster | lobstering | Maine | North Atlantic right whale | tradition


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