From the Dock: Sustainability and the Maine lobster industry

First published in Landings, April, 2013.

The recent effort by the Maine DMR to conduct community outreach meetings is extremely vital. It might be considered the primary leadership responsibility in conducting relations between the fisherman as citizens and their government representatives. To assess future needs as one of sustainability is also of vital importance when considering the three components of any long-term healthy existence. These components can be categorized as social, economic and environmental.

Every fisherman must recognize that we cannot dismiss or trade one element for another and expect our communities to thrive. Long-term sustainability requires the management of all three components in concert.

Social component

Education, education, education: No community can survive without it and every community can potentially thrive with it. Do the fishermen truly understand the value of sustainability and the responsibility they have in support of this social component? There is a growing belief by a segment of fishermen that education is not necessary and some opinion that education is an interference and/or inconvenience to the fishing industry. This belief is unacceptable and is surely a threat to community and fishing sustainability.

Other extremely important areas such as zone empowerment, district rights, safety and health should also be improved. For example, random drug and alcohol testing should be considered as an acceptable means of improving the overall health, safety and well-being of our fishing communities. This one particular measure has proven effective in other marine commercial operations.

Environmental component

The “bottom saturation” method of fishing coupled with a healthy lobster biomass without doubt has created ever-increasing harvests for the Maine lobster fisherman. The environmental impacts of this saturation method must certainly have a negative impact on the ocean floor when considering annual gear losses and the materials used for manufacturing the traps. The vertical lines, buoys and associated gear also aid and abet the degradation and harm of the marine environment. Visible and invisible debris from our fishing efforts cannot be denied. Fortunately, and unfortunately, Maine lobstermen are not alone in this problem. Worldwide ocean pollution via various waste streams is a serious threat. We need not look any further than southern New England and what happened there when Long Island was impacted with pesticide runoff just a few years ago. Our debate about sustainability might finally lead us to determine to verify realistically how many traps are truly being fished, how many vertical lines deployed and what impacts the gear losses are having on our marine ecosystem. We have not and cannot accomplish this through the present system of state-issued trap tags.

Economic component

The short-term issues with “product glut” as it  effected the boat price during the spring season of 2012 is another example of a long-term debate about our “boat to the plate” business. What might be affecting this component and in what internal arenas may we find the solutions?

  • Buyer and/or Processor transparency (perception of price fixing).
  • Marketing ( Note; if it is not working then change it and hold the marketing people accountable.)
  • Private-Public Partnerships, meaning various state agencies focus and collaborate together with the fishermen on all business aspects of fishing.
  • Aggressive branding and label protection of the “Maine” product.
  • Find solutions to minimize mortality rates from “boat to restaurant.”
  • Licensed fishermen via their zone council should initiate a discussion to consider organizing as a associated membership to collectively bargain for minimum sustainable “boat price.”
  • Improve revenue reporting.

Final thoughts:

The idea of possible latent fishing effort as an impediment to the sustainability of lobster fishing is more of an anecdotal worry than probable threat to the fishery. Available data suggest that the latency as a percentage is one of affordable hedging by the license holder.

There is certainly some frustration with the management of licenses relative to zone entry and exit ratios. The tag-based ratio is flawed. Basically, the latent statistics can be used as an artificial protective barrier against entry. An active fisherman’s best friend is another latent or less active fisherman. That said, the statistics from the 2011 report would indicate that the 296 people awaiting entry represent an overall increase of just six percent in licenses and a nine percent increase in tags based on the average ratio of licenses to tags or roughly 583 tags (not traps!) per license. Please note the overall increase is state-based and not zone-based.

We need to focus on the industry as a free enterprise business with methodical, pragmatic oversight and accountability. This requires a leadership focus and effort in bringing business and labor knowledge to the forefront by using best available business techniques and technology for success.

Thanks for listening and best regards,

Michael J. Ames

Zone C, District-9, Lic.No. 4300

Editor’s note: This letter was sent to DMR commissioner Patrick Keliher. Mr. Ames fishes from Matinicus Island.