Guest Column: Science for the coast: Maine Sea Grant

First published in the MLA Newsletter, June, 2012.

Paul Anderson is the director of the Maine Sea Grant College program. Sea Grant photo..

Once upon a time, finding a lobsterman who agreed with a government scientist was a rare if not impossible occurrence. Number-crunching by regulatory agencies in the 1990s showed that lobsters were overfished, while the men and women hauling traps in the Gulf of Maine were harvesting record numbers of lobsters. Everyone was using a different source of information and nothing made sense. Disagreement led to mistrust, which led to some bitter words and overall discontent in the lobstering world.

Today, lobster landings have reached record highs and the fishery is the dominant industry on Maine’s working waterfront, supporting coastal communities and indeed the economy of the entire state.

To what can we attribute the success of Maine’s lobster industry? Certainly management, including many conservation measures instituted by lobstermen themselves, deserves some of the credit. But science plays a role, too, in improving our collective knowledge about the many factors that affect lobsters and the ecosystem. For more than thirty years, from the first tagging studies that followed lobsters on their long-distance migrations across the sea floor to critical analyses of fishery population models, the Maine Sea Grant program at the University of Maine has supported science that works with fishermen to improve our knowledge of Homarus americanus.

So what is Sea Grant? Sea Grant is a nationwide network administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of 32 university-based programs that work with coastal communities. Each program conducts scientific research, education, training, and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of aquatic resources. In short, Sea Grant is “science serving America’s coasts.”

In the 1980s, Maine Sea Grant supported Dr. Bob Bayer’s research on lobster health which led to creation of the Lobster Institute, now celebrating its thirtieth year of engaging lobstermen in problem-solving science.

Our program also funded the first tagging studies to follow long-term movements of individual Maine lobsters, revealing that lobsters were not sedentary as commonly believed but instead made long-distance migrations across the sea floor. This work was unique in its engagement of lobstermen (via the Maine Lobstermen’s Association) in research planning.

Maine Sea Grant helped biologists Bob Steneck and Rick Wahle develop a way to sample juvenile lobsters as the animals settled to the sea floor. Today, the American Lobster Settlement Index has expanded to southern New England and Maritime Canada. New funding from Sea Grant will allow Dr. Wahle to evaluate the Index’s potential power to predict future lobster catches.

The modeling work of the University of Maine’s Dr. Yong Chen, funded by Sea Grant since his arrival in Maine, confirmed for federal fishery scientists that v-notching has made a difference in the lobster fishery by protecting reproductive stocks. The lobster stock assessment model developed by Chen is now used by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to assess all the lobster stocks in the U.S.

In 2010, Maine Sea Grant partnered with the other Sea Grant programs in the Northeast to fund a project led by Dr. Hauke Kite-Powell of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to evaluate the risk of right whale entanglement in different lobster fishing areas. As part of the project, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association helped collect, for the first time, fine-scale data from lobstermen on how and where they fish.

The human dimension of fishing has been a focus of Sea Grant research since 1977, when James Acheson, an anthropologist at the University of Maine, received funding to study the adoption of wire traps in the lobster industry. Acheson’s ongoing research studies, along with that of colleague James Wilson, show that the actions of Maine lobstermen have created the environmental conditions required for sustainable conservation. As a result of their work with lobstermen, the Maine legislature instituted a new law in 1996 empowering seven regional councils to “co-manage” local lobster populations. Maine’s Zone Council structure continues to serve as a model for other fisheries.

More recently, Sea Grant funded Dr. Teresa Johnson of University of Maine to study the resilience of Maine’s coastal fishing communities to better understand the risk and vulnerabilities that these communities face from relying so heavily on commercial fishing. The study will help highlight how socioeconomic factors should be considered in fisheries management while documenting the threats to fishing communities and the resources available to respond to those threats.

Maine Sea Grant continues to take an active role in lobster science and management initiatives. This fall the program, in partnership with several other institutions, is hosting  “The American Lobster in a Changing Ecosystem: A U.S.-Canada Science Symposium” in Portland. Participants from the two countries can learn more about all forms of science related to the American lobster.

These success stories should remind lobstermen who remember the early days of lobster science to stay involved, and encourage those who became lobstermen within the last decade to collaborate with Sea Grant-funded researchers.

Paul Anderson is director of the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine. In addition to investments in scientific research through competitive grants, Maine Sea Grant supports the Marine Extension Team in partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.