The winter months are hard on lobstermen. There are still lobsters to be caught, but they’re further offshore and New England’s particular version of Mother Nature rarely cooperates with the men and women brave enough to try and challenge her for their livelihood on the frigid Gulf of Maine.
In the summertime the lobsters can be found right along the coast, and the weather is much more forgiving, but during winter it can be weeks in between days that are calm enough, clear enough, and safe enough for a trip offshore.
Lobstermen up and down the Maine coast have spent many a cold night checking the weather reports, praying that the wind and fog will hold off so they can get out the next day to catch enough to keep the lights on and put food on the table.
In the weeks prior to Winter Storm Juno’s arrival, the maritime conditions were rough enough to force lobstermen to keep their boats tied up.
Then, just two days after Juno, the skies cleared and the swells subsided. Lobstermen all over the region cheerfully headed out to check on their traps and bring home a little bacon.
But for several Portland lobstermen that elation was short-lived, because when they arrived at their berths they were shocked to find ice over a foot thick trapping their boats in and making it impossible to navigate them away from the wharves.
Joel McCann, Captain and owner of Call me Ishmael, said that the ice was caused by thoughtless plow drivers pushing snow into the harbor. The snow turned into slush and froze overnight.
“This could put us out of work for weeks, there’s nowhere for it to go and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said McCann.
He’s right in more ways than one- there’s not much they can do to get the ice that’s already formed out of there, but according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection there’s also not much they can do to prevent it from worsening or happening again.
Karl Wilkins, acting communications director for the DEP, had this to say about the snow being pushed into the wharf berths:
“There’s nothing in our rules currently that would prohibit this activity. We have no control over their berths freezing up. I have no idea if the snow is even exacerbating the problem, but it certainly doesn’t pose an environmental threat which is always our primary concern.”
Wilkins said that state law allows for snow that accumulates adjacent to a waterway to be pushed into said water, but it cannot be transported from another site and dumped into the water, even if that site is just across the street.
The rule sounds reasonable enough, and according to Portland’s Deputy Harbor Master, Lance Hanna, “this is extremely rare, you’ll see the harbor itself freeze up just about every year, but I can’t remember a time like this where so many boats were frozen in this badly.”
Hanna said that even though it doesn’t happen often that doesn’t mean steps shouldn’t be taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. After all, the DEP may serve a vital role in keeping our public waterways clean, but according to their website:
“The Department is also directed to protect and enhance the public’s right to use and enjoy the State’s natural resources.”
McCann isn’t looking to cast blame, he just wants results:
“I don’t care who does what or how they do it, as long as something’s done to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Every one of us that’s iced in has already lost out on money, and for some guys- especially stern men- they really need the money this time of year.”
As part of their mission statement, the Maine DEP pledges “to be mindful of the special qualities that make Maine a unique place to live and work.”
In keeping with that mission, it’s incumbent on the DEP to ensure that our state’s most iconic workers not have to worry about being put out of work due to careless snow removal and poor oversight.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as if any action will be taken anytime soon to correct the problem. Said Wilkins:
“I’m not aware of any activity at this point to change those rules. If we did change the rules it may require the parking lot owners to haul the snow away at a cost to them, so there’s a lot of things to consider. To my knowledge there’s no effort at this time to modify these rules.”
Note: The interviews for this story were conducted on Thursday, Jan. 29 and Friday, Jan. 30, and the story was written on Monday, Feb. 2. Before sitting down to write the piece I drove through driving snow on Monday to check out the waterfront again to see if the ice had subsided in the berth areas of the wharves since Thursday. I found that while some of the boats near the rims of the ice formations had managed to break free, most of the ice had solidified even more, and was just getting worse in this latest storm- very bad news for the lobstermen who are still iced in.