Ads sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals greet travelers at the Portland International Jetport on Wedneday just outside the arrival doors. The start of a monthlong campaign by PETA coincided with the launch of the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Welcome to Maine. Please don’t eat the lobster.

That’s the message PETA is sending to arriving passengers at the state’s largest airport this month. The animal rights group has bought a month’s worth of ads at the Portland International Jetport that feature a lobster holding a sign proclaiming, “I’m ME, Not Meat.”

It further encourages visitors to “See the individual. Go Vegan.”

An ad at the Portland International Jetport invites passengers to take home live or steamed lobsters. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals now has competing ads at the airport. Staff photo by Michele McDonald

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, advocates against the use of animals for food, entertainment or experimentation.

The ads, which the city says are protected under the First Amendment, take on a huge, $500 million industry in Maine at a time when it is facing headwinds on multiple fronts. The lobster catch fell last year, from 131 million pounds in 2016 to 111 million pounds. Competition from Canada has risen as its weaker dollar and better trade deals help it capture more foreign markets. And lobstermen are warily watching an escalating trade war with China, one of the biggest overseas markets for Maine lobster.

The ads will be up for the month of August, PETA said, and are located near what the organization calls “the notorious Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster Cafe,” pointing out that the restaurant sells live lobsters for passengers to take on their flights as carry-on luggage. Five years ago, PETA said an investigation it conducted alleged that lobsters were dismembered while still alive in a Linda Bean processing plant.

PETA’s ad campaign at the airport was launched to coincide with the Maine Lobster Festival, which kicked off in Rockland this week. The festival said it attracts about 30,000 people to the five-day event.

The ads are relatively understated and are located in the gate area and just outside the doors to the terminal used by arriving passengers. But passengers would have to crane their necks to see another ad because it faces the opposite way from the path arrivals would take.

Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said the jetport ads are sold by Clear Channel, an advertising company. PETA said it spent $3,000 for the month’s worth of ads.

The company forwards copies of the ads to airport officials for clearance, but the potential impact of an ad on a major industry isn’t part of the equation on whether to accept it.

The city could reject the ads if they were deemed offensive. While lobstermen might disagree, PETA’s ads aren’t offensive and are protected political speech, which the city wouldn’t attempt to bar, she said.

“This one falls within the First Amendment,” Grondin said.

DO LOBSTERS FEEL PAIN OR ANGST?

PETA argues that lobsters have feelings, which most scientists would argue is impossible because the crustacean lacks a well-developed central nervous system.

Faith Robinson, a PETA spokeswoman, said the organization believes that lobsters are akin to cats and dogs, with personalities and even a sense of their own mortality, as illustrated by a lobster’s scratching at the inside of a pot during the first few minutes of cooking.

“Most people wouldn’t consider putting a dog or a cat in a pot of boiling water,” Robinson said, and they should feel the same revulsion to cooking a lobster.

“Lobsters feel pain,” she said, and PETA wants Mainers, and Maine visitors, “to spare lobsters a painful, violent death.”

But Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, said all the research indicates that lobsters have nervous systems on a par with insects and likely don’t feel pain, let alone develop personalities and angst about their futures.

“How do you feel about swatting a mosquito or a fly?” he said.

Bayer admits that years of research hasn’t led scientists to be able to definitively conclude whether lobsters feel pain, and the issue is likely to remain unresolved.

“There’s never going to be an absolute answer,” he said. “They’re not going to tell us.”

Bayer said for those who feel squeamish about cooking lobster, and that inside-the-pot moving around, there are a couple of workarounds. He said one solution is to put lobsters in fresh water, which puts them to sleep, or get them very cold, although he cautions that too long in the freezer can kill them, which is to be avoided before cooking. The late Ed Muskie, a former Maine governor and U.S. senator, used to entertain visitors by flipping a lobster over and rubbing its underside, claiming it hypnotized the lobster before it was cooked.

The feud between the lobster industry and PETA is long-running, Bayer said.

“I don’t know why they pick on lobster,” he said. “I’ll cook them any time that I can.”

LOBSTER LOYALTY ENDURES, DESPITE ADS

Roger Knight, a Maine native who now lives in Naples, Florida, flew into Portland on Wednesday with lobster on his mind. Unswayed by PETA’s ad at the airport, he said, “I’m eating lobster every day I’m up here.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Some passengers at the airport Wednesday said the ads won’t deter them from dining on the state’s signature seafood.

“I’m eating lobster every day I’m up here,” said Roger Knight, a Maine native who lives in Naples, Florida, and is back in his home state for a week to visit family in Waterville.

Knight said there wasn’t anything in the PETA ad that was going to put him off his lobster.

“That’s what we’re known for,” he said.

Mother and daughter Joyce and Jennifer Kjellgren said they planned to head out for a lobster lunch as soon as they left the airport. The two, searching for cooler weather, flew in Wednesday morning and saw PETA’s signs, but it wasn’t enough to force a change in their plans.

Joyce Kjellgren, from West Palm Beach, Florida, and her daughter Jennifer, from Atlanta, rented an Airbnb in Cape Elizabeth near Two Lights State Park. That means they were going to have a leisurely lunch at the oceanside Lobster Shack while they wait for their rental to be ready.

“We’re definitely going to do what the locals do,” Jennifer Kjellgren said.

Jennifer Kjellgren, right, of Atlanta and her mother, Joyce Kjellgren of Naples, Fla., arrived in Portland on Wednesday and said they planned to head out for a lobster lunch as soon as they left the airport, regardless of PETA’s ad. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Joyce Kjellgren said she loves animals, but lobster and other seafood don’t conjure up any warm and fuzzy feelings that would lead her to opt for a salad instead.

“It just doesn’t feel the same with seafood,” as it might with beef or chicken, she said.

But Adam – a Chicago man who declined to give his last name – said he will still steer clear of lobster and other seafood while he visits Portland with his wife and two daughters.

Adam said he’s been a vegetarian for six or seven years, and his children and wife are as well. He said he stopped eating meat because vegetables are healthier and because of the practices used to get meat and seafood to the dinner table.

He ate lobster before deciding to go vegetarian, he said, but it didn’t make enough of an impression to get him to reconsider on this visit to Portland.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]