Australia & Maine: “We’ve just gone about it differently”

First published in Landings, June, 2015.

Kristan Porter with an Australian lobster. Photo courtesy of K. Porter.

Kristan Porter with an Australian lobster. Photo courtesy of K. Porter.

It’s a little bit daunting to visit the opposite side of the world. There are the long hours spent in an airplane, and the different weather, customs and food. But for Cutler lobsterman Kristan Porter, visiting Australia to share Maine’s lobstering practices and learn more about that country’s thriving rock lobster fishery was an adventure.

“It started with the International Lobstermen’s Exchange that Maine Sea Grant and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) organized [in March, 2010]. I met a lot of guys through that,” Porter explained. The Exchange brought lobstermen from southwest Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Ireland, Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand to Maine to find out about the state’s lobster industry. The lobstermen visited 11 Maine towns, fished with local lobstermen, and met with people and businesses involved in the industry. Porter and fellow Maine lobstermen were intrigued by the similarities and differences between Maine’s cold water lobster fishery and Australia’s warm water rock lobster fishery.

Australia has another similarity to Maine: it too has endangered whales that become entangled in fishing gear. So when Tim Werner, director of marine conservation engineering at the New England Aquarium, invited Porter in 2013 to join on a trip to investigate the types of gear and rope Australians were using and how they interacted with whales, Porter was interested. As vice-president of the MLA, Porter was well aware of the measures used by Maine lobstermen to keep North Atlantic right whales and other large whales safe. He had participated in collaborative research studies testing different ropes and gear modifications, and in a reverse engineering workshop organized by Werner to brainstorm how an entanglement might have happened based on the gear removed from the whale and other information. “Tim asked me to go as a lobsterman. I was almost like a translator to the fishermen for him,” Porter laughed.

After the conference, Porter went lobstering with many local lobstermen, met with officials from the area’s fisheries management agency, and generally learned a lot about how things are done on the far side of the world. “The guys were so good to me there. It’s a lot like Maine in a way, because it’s a huge country with a small population. The people were very friendly,” Porter said.

Western Australia’s rock lobster fishery has been a limited-entry fishery since 1963. A licensed lobsterman holds an individual transferable quota which dictates how many pounds he can land. He is also limited in the number of traps he can set. As in Maine, there are minimum and maximum size requirements and regulations prohibiting the harvest of breeding female lobsters. The fishery was the first certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable fishery in 2000. There are 250 vessels in the Western rock lobster fishery, which is the most valuable in Australia. The total allowable commercial catch in 2013-14 was 5,554 tons with an export value of $358 million ($Australian).

A well-loaded Australian boat about to set a few traps. Photo courtesy of K. Porter.

A well-loaded Australian boat about to set a few traps. Photo courtesy of K. Porter.

During the summer of 2014 Jason How, an Australian whale researcher, came to Maine to learn more about how Maine lobstermen rig their gear to minimize interactions with whales. The MLA connected How with several lobstermen along the coast. “He went out with David Cousens, Steve Train, and me. He was fascinated by how we fish and the management system for lobstering, the entry/exit ratios, the apprenticeship program and so on,” Porter said. Australian rock lobstermen fish all single traps, no trawls, and they are limited in the number of traps they can set. Seeing thousands of buoys in the water “just blew him away,” he recalled.

Porter kept in contact with his new friends in Australia. Then, this past winter, another invitation came his way. “They asked me to come to the Rock Lobster Congress in April to talk about what we are doing here in Maine. They would provide accommodations if I could get there.” Travelling to Western Australia for a three-day conference would not be a casual trip. Porter, like most other lobstermen, was getting ready to start putting his traps in the water and make some money again after a long, cold winter. He hesitated. “Then I decided, what the heck, I’m going. You’re a long time dead, do what you want to do now,” he said.

His aim in attending the conference was to keep the flow of ideas between fishermen, started in the initial lobstermen’s exchange in 2010, going. Porter ended up successfully applying for a small travel grant from Maine Sea Grant based on that principle. He was there and back in less than a week. “It was a quick trip,” he acknowledged. “I had to get back to set my gear.”

Porter admitted to feeling a little nervous heading to a scientific conference by himself. He worked with the MLA to prepare a PowerPoint presentation covering all of the major points about the Maine lobster fishery. Although he has been a board member of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum for many years, standing up at a podium in front of an audience of strangers wasn’t something he felt comfortable about. “I was worried about not knowing anyone there. But it was completely the opposite. I met up with some of the guys I’d fished with two years ago. They took me under their wings and included me in everything.”

While the two fisheries take place at opposite parts of the globe under very different management regimes, they do have many traits in common, according to Porter. “It’s not that one way is better than the other. We both have MSC certification but we’ve gone about it differently,” he said.