Steaming Ahead December 2016

A Look Back at 2016

Since 1954, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has pursued its mission to advocate for a sustainable lobster resource and the fishermen and communities that depend on it. While the final numbers are not in, by nearly all accounts 2016 will go down as another successful year for Maine’s lobster industry and for the MLA.

While the Maine lobster industry continues to enjoy many successes, I am struck by the volume and complexity of issues that we are facing. Lobster is a public resource, and with that status comes a vast array of management and regulatory issues. The MLA keeps track of all of them, and works to ensure that when the dust settles, Maine lobstermen are still fishing and able to make a living.

The issues in 2016 were far-ranging — from examining the effects of pesticide residues on Maine lobster stocks and working to exempt lobster gear from proposed protected coral zones Downeast to monitoring how haddock bycatch limits are managed in the offshore herring fishery. In addition, Maine lobstermen experienced some significant changes this year, including reform of the lobster license limited entry program and a new management approach in how herring is managed to serve the lobster bait market.

While policy and advocacy are the bread and butter of MLA’s work, we also strive to offer a membership program that is meaningful to lobstermen. The MLA works hard to maintain a robust portfolio of benefits for our members including the MLA’s vessel insurance program, monthly newsletter, weekly email updates on relevant news, weekly lobster, bait and fuel prices, business discounts and health insurance enrollment assistance. In 2016, we added a few new programs – safety training, a trip to the Boston Seafood Show and the Lobster Quality Tour.

The Lobster Quality Tour brought Canadian lobster veterinarian Dr. Jean Lavallée to seven communities along the coast. Dr. Lavallée spoke on behalf of the lobster, explaining how deceptive this crustacean can be when it comes to its health. A lobster that seemingly looks healthy in the crate coming off a boat may not be alive when it arrives at the processing plant. The lobster’s anatomy plays a huge role in this outcome – a simple puncture to its abdomen can severe the nerve cord and result in death. Due to the response to Dr. Lavallée’s first tour in 2016, the MLA is bringing him back in 2017!

2016 marked the completion of the MLA’s third year helping fishermen and their families navigate the health insurance bureaucracy created under the Affordable Care Act. The good news is that the MLA has helped hundreds of fishing families along the coast to understand the health insurance options available to them and to complete enrollment. The bad news is that affordable health insurance continues to be a challenge for those who have seen rates skyrocket, do not qualify for subsidies and can no longer purchase catastrophic plans. MLA will continue to advocate for remedies that correct the deficiencies of the current system.

The MLA also collaborated with Fishing Partnership Support Services and McMillan Offshore Survival to connect lobstermen with safety and drill conductor trainings around the state. MLA expanded its safety work by partnering with NIOSH on a project to identify and test life jackets (PFDs) that are comfortable enough to work in while fishing. Then, there are the ever-changing Coast Guard fishing vessel safety regulations, which the MLA reports on regularly to its members.

Like clockwork, the MLA’s Board of Directors meets monthly, except for August. Members are always welcome to attend these meetings or to reach out to any of the directors to find out what is going on. MLA’s directors regularly discuss issues facing the lobster industry and how the MLA can best represent the interest of its members.

 

The MLA at the Maine Legislature

The MLA continued its active role in Maine’s legislative process, interacting regularly with the Marine Resources Committee and state legislators. In 2016, the Legislature enacted historic legislation to reform the lobster license limited entry system, changed the pay scale for Maine’s Marine Patrol officers and made lobster the Official Crustacean of Maine. The MLA solicited feedback from its members, attend public hearings, provided official comments and kept the industry updated throughout the legislative session. The MLA was at every public hearing and work session, providing input and guidance to the Legislature.

 

Bait

Maintaining a steady and affordable bait supply was a huge challenge in 2016. The MLA remained closely involved in the management of bait species at both the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). While both the herring and menhaden stocks are considered rebuilt (neither are overfished and overfishing is not occurring), there has been a lot of contention about how best to manage these species.

How best to manage the inshore herring stock (Area 1A) to supply the lobster bait market sparked significant debate in 2016. Pressure on the Area 1A inshore fishery was tremendous and the DMR feared that this level of fishing pressure would lead to its closure in July. With minimal landings from the offshore fishery expected, the DMR implemented emergency measures to pace those Area 1A landings to last until September. The MLA supported this approach since most lobstermen wanted to have fresh herring landed during August and September. As a result, bait supplies were limited and prices skyrocketed. The lesson from this summer’s herring crisis is that lobstermen and state managers must strategize together on how best to manage the inshore herring fishery in future years.

Menhaden appeared in large numbers in Maine in 2016. The state, however, receives a very small ASMFC allocation of menhaden. The MLA supported DMR’s efforts to get portions of the episodic menhaden quota allocated to Maine. MLA also supported the small increase in the overall menhaden quota for 2017 approved by ASFMC. The MLA will follow closely discussions of menhaden quota allocations, and push for a larger menhaden allocation to the bait fishery, which will take place through Amendment 3 to the ASMFC Menhaden Plan.

MLA also closely monitored two management actions underway through the NEFMC. Amendment 8 will address how herring quota is allocated for both the herring fishery and its role as a forage species. MLA has participated in the Council’s herring workshops and consistently stressed the importance of herring as bait for Maine lobstermen and the need to maintain adequate quota for the commercial fishery. NEFMC is also working on Amendment 5 to the herring management plan to address haddock bycatch in the Area 3 herring fishery. Fortunately, the haddock bycatch limit has been raised and the Council continues to work on other solutions which would allow the full Area 3 herring quota to be landed. MLA also supported Amendment 3 to the ASMFC Herring Plan which put in place new strategies to monitor spawning herring and better manage spawning closures.

 

Whale Rules

The full Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP) is in place. The sinking line rule has been in effect since 2009 and the vertical line rule since 2015. Maine was proactive in proposing protection measures that would work for the Maine lobster fishery and thus avoided more extreme measures such as the winter closures implemented in Massachusetts. The whale plan is now in its monitoring phase. 2016 marked the first full year of monitoring the effectiveness of the whale rules. The MLA participates in the Monitoring Working Group.

The effectiveness of the whale plan is monitored by examining many factors such as the number of entanglements and corresponding serious injuries or deaths; analyses of fishing gear removed from whales; monitoring whale population growth trends; changes in oceanic conditions and other information. To date, NMFS has not issued an update on the performance of the whale rules under the monitoring strategy. NMFS has stated that it will take at least five years to understand how well the whale plan is working.

The scientific community has weighed in with its opinion on how the plan, suggesting a link between fishing gear entanglements and the recent decline in right whale reproduction rates. The MLA published an editorial challenging this conclusion, instead suggesting that climate change is the most likely culprit for the recent downturn in reproduction. The MLA remains engaged in all aspects of large whale research and management, attending the annual North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Annual meeting and commenting on stock assessments and other research efforts.

In late January, 2016, NOAA expanded the critical habitat designations for endangered North Atlantic right whales to encompass the entire Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank and the southeast calving grounds from North Carolina to Florida. Although the MLA strongly opposed this expansion, NOAA stated that the new designations would not affect commercial fishermen.

NOAA implemented rules to ban the import of seafood from countries that do not meet U.S. marine mammal protection standards, effective January 1, 2017. Under this rule, fisheries which do not meet U.S. marine mammal protection standards cannot be imported into the United States. The program has a five-year phase-in period.  

 

Swedish lobster ban

The MLA partnered with Maine Dealers Association, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine delegation and other regional organizations to object to Sweden’s petition to ban live lobster exports to the European Union. Sweden claimed that Maine lobster was an invasive species after finding several dozen American lobsters in its waters. In October, the European Union denied the Swedish petition.

 

Predicting the lobster shed

The MLA voiced strong concerns to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) that its lobster season forecast this spring resulted in negative press and hurt the lobster markets. The MLA met with GMRI representatives, as well as Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) and Maine Dealers Association, to urge GMRI to be more cautious in communicating its predictions in the future.

 

Penobscot Bay Hydrograhic Survey

The MLA worked closely with the NOAA contractor on the hydrographic survey of Penobscot Bay during the summer of 2016. The MLA organized a meeting with local lobstermen to discuss strategies to minimize the loss of lobster gear during the project. The project utilized both plane and two jet-drive boats to conduct the survey and avoid lobster gear. The MLA helped to keep the industry updated on the survey as it progressed, resulting in minimal interaction with lobster gear and boats.

 

Penobscot River Closure

The MLA supported the expansion of the Penobscot River closure based data collected by DMR which corroborated the previous court findings and provided additional data on mercury levels in the area. The results from the crab samples, however, did not show contamination levels that would justify a closure. The MLA continues to advocate for additional testing and analysis of crab data and re-opening the crab fishery as soon as possible.

 

Coral Zones

The MLA has been tracking the development of the NEFMC Coral Amendment. The Council has designated two coral zones in downeast Maine, located near the Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mound Desert Rock, that if closed, could negatively impact lobstermen. The MLA is working with DMR to document the economic importance of these fishing grounds to Maine lobstermen and to seek an exemption for lobster trap gear.

 

Pesticides and Lobster

The MLA continues to monitor the Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) study to understand how the use of pesticides along the coast is impacting lobster. The MLA is also working closely with the BPC and Forest Service to monitor the recent upsurge in the brown tail moth population and ensure that pesticides used to control these moths do not harm the lobster resource. The MLA successfully lobbied for strict controls in how these pesticide are used within 250 feet of high tide. 

 

National Monument and Federal Observers

The MLA and several other regional fishing associations opposed designation of a National Monument in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, President Obama declared the Northeast offshore canyons and seamounts as a marine National Monument, banning commercial fishing in these areas (the offshore lobster and red crab fishery have seven years to phase out). Fortunately, Cashes Ledge, which had also been proposed for the national monument status, was not included.

 

Many of Maine’s federal permit holders had to host federal observers aboard their lobster vessels in 2015-2016 when nearly 500 trips were assigned to the Northeast lobster fishery. The MLA worked with DMR and Maine lobstermen to document concerns regarding federal observers, such as how lobsters were handled on deck and redundancy with the Maine sea sampling program, and provided feedback to NMFS. In 2016-2017, the Northeast lobster fishery has been assigned only 14 trips.

 

Climate Change

During 2016, a lot of voices expressed concern about climate change and its potential impacts on commercial fisheries. While recent research seems to diminish worries about the impact of ocean acidification on lobsters, it did raise concerns about the impact that rising ocean temperatures may have on the development of lobster larvae. This fall also saw an unprecedented bloom of the phytoplankton that produced domoic acid. This toxin shut down Maine’s shellfish industry this fall, and it has had a dire economic impact West Coast crab fisheries in recent years. The MLA will continue to call for better understanding of the potential impacts of domoic acid on the lobster fishery.

 

Energy Development

The MLA is monitoring the development of the University of Maine and Maine Aqua Ventus offshore wind project off Monhegan Island efforts to find a suitable location to connect its electrical power to the mainland and the community and local lobstermen’s actions to negotiate community benefits from this project. The MLA continues to monitor the Maine Green Line project which seeks to lay an undersea cable to transmit renewable energy generated from Maine windfarms to the metro areas of New England.

 

MLA remains the industry leader

There’s was certainly a lot going on along the waterfront in 2016. The MLA believes that Maine lobstermen support the organization because of its vigilance, and the pride we put into representing lobstermen’s interests on this array of complex issues.

 

Understanding our members’ diverse opinions is essential and informs all of our work. This remains challenging since lobstermen rarely agree. But that is what the MLA does – we provide leadership and a vision for the industry that ensures a sustainable fishery and a legacy to pass on to generations to come.

 

It’s a sign of the value that the MLA holds in Maine’s lobstering communities that the organization has been in business for more than 60 years. It’s a further sign of the dedication of its board of directors and staff that so much can be accomplished in a single year with so few paid employees. I hope that you take pride in your Association’s efforts on your behalf during this past year. See you at the Annual Meeting in March! Without our members, there is no MLA.