Remarkable People: Jim Manning, instigator of eMOLT

First published in Landings, September, 2013.

It was a picture of the Damariscotta River in a University of Maine college catalogue that caught Jim Manning’s eye. The Massachusetts native was in school at Boston College in the mid-1970s when he happened upon the catalogue and spied the iconic picture. “It caught me,” Manning admitted.

Jim Manning, MLA director Patrice McCarron, middle, and Erin Pelletier, Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelletier.
Jim Manning, MLA director Patrice McCarron, middle, and Erin Pelletier, Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelletier.

In fact, Manning had been intrigued by the ocean well before his college years. As a child he and his family had camped on the Cape Cod shore each summer. Wandering around on the beaches along Truro and Provincetown, young Manning noticed the area’s strong waves and tides. “I couldn’t help but wonder about what drives these things,” he explained.

Thus after two years at Boston College, Manning transferred to the University of Maine and began to dabble in oceanography. After graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1979, he decided to help a friend build a 40-foot sailboat. They then sailed the boat across the Atlantic Ocean. “We spent about three weeks in the Azores and then went on to Madeira and the Canary Islands,” Manning said. “And then we sailed to the Caribbean.” After months roaming the world on a sailboat, Manning decided it was time to head back to school. He enrolled in the University of Rhode Island’s School of Oceanography but after one year, the urge to travel hit again. “It took me six years to get my Master’s,” Manning explained. He graduated in 1987 with a degree in physical oceanography.

With his degree in hand and a wife and new baby, Manning took a position with the Acadia Institute of Oceanography in Seal Harbor, Maine, teaching oceanography courses to children. Although he delighted in working with children, his wife’s family lived in Cape Cod. When a job for a physical oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Woods Hole became available, Manning applied. “I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

It proved a good fit. The NEFSC focuses on applied research, studies that have meaning in the world of fishermen as well as oceanographers. “I was more interested in applied oceanography than in theoretical,” Manning explained. As part of the research team in the center’s oceanography branch Manning conducted studies of temperature, salinity and currents on the Northeast Shelf, spending weeks at sea dropping CTDs (a conductivity, temperature and depth gauge) and other instruments over the side of a ship. He took part in the multi-institutional Globec (Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics) project on Georges Bank during the 1990s, which tracked young cod and haddock populations over time. In general, Manning kept his hands wet.

But even the most applied scientist runs into certain intractable obstacles. Manning’s research cruises were a week or so in length, taking place perhaps twice or three times a year. He just wasn’t on the water often enough to get a good grasp of what was happening beneath the waves. Until one night, a bold idea came to him.

“I was on the midnight watch [during one research cruise] and saw all these lights. There were fishing boats out there hundreds of miles from shore,” Manning recalled. “I realized that they were noticing things too. They went out there every week all year and I was making do with a week or two of sampling per year.”

So he decided to enlist fishermen to gather the data that he wanted. Manning started showing up at meetings of various fishermen’s associations on the Cape. In 2001 he convinced lobstermen in the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association to attach simple sampling devices to their traps to provide temperature data throughout the year. The eMOLT program was born.

eMOLT stands for Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps. In the world of multi-million dollar research studies, eMOLT is science on a shoestring. “Jim’s a heck of nice guy and handy,” said Bobby Ingalls, a Bucks Harbor lobsterman who has participated in the program since 2001. “He can make something out of PVC pipe and glue and make it work.” Manning’s temperature sensors, which are made in Canada, are inexpensive and durable. They are attached to a lobster trap; when the trap is hauled, the sensor wirelessly transmits data to a recording system on the boat.

During a research cruise at the mouth on Penobscot Bay in 2002, Manning was taken aback by all the lobster buoys he saw around the bay and quickly decided to recruit Maine lobstermen into his program. The number of eMOLT participants rapidly grew to 150 fishermen scattered throughout New England. Manning found most lobstermen were amenable to putting the sensors on their traps. “The ones I’ve talked to really want to learn everything they can about the ocean. They want to know why things change from week to week or from year to year,” he said.

Lobstermen are asked to place the trap with the sensor in the same place and at the same depth each time they set. The data is downloaded at the end of the year. “The goal is to get long-term data at the maximum number of sites,” Manning said.

Making sure that the data comes in from each trap is important to Manning. Ingalls recalled a time when one of the eMOLT traps in his area seemed to have disappeared. “They have a tag on them so you can trace them no matter what,” Ingalls explained. This particular trap appeared to be on land somewhere around Bucks Harbor. So Manning pestered one lobsterman he thought might have the trap with phone calls. Exasperated, that lobsterman told Manning that he didn’t have it but suggested another lobsterman down the road might. So Manning called that man three or four times until he reached him. Sure enough, he had the trap. “Jim’s going to track them down no matter what,” Ingalls said.

The eMOLT program has expanded to include low-cost current drifters, first built by students at Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland and now being built by students throughout New England. The drifters provide consistent data to physical oceanographers on the movements of currents in the Gulf of Maine throughout the year (to see the drifter tracks, visit Manning also is developing a low-cost temperature sensor for lobster traps that would provide real-time data on an hourly basis. “Ocean forecast modelers, like weather forecasters, want this sort of data,” Manning explained.

Part of the pleasure that Manning obviously takes in his work comes from interacting with lobstermen and students. “I like the enthusiasm of the fishermen. I know that people are really interested in the eMOLT data,” Manning said. “When I first did oceanography in the 1990s, I did papers and never knew if anyone read them or cared. Now I’m having such a good time at work, I don’t do my chores at home. My house is falling down!”

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