Steaming Ahead: June 2016

First published in Landings, June, 2016.

These are the days we’ll remember. Some day in the future we will look back on this chapter of the Maine lobster fishery and say “those were the good old days!” We are living in a world of plenty. We have plenty of lobsters, plenty of buyers and enough money to pay our bills. We enjoy this time of plenty because of our industry’s strict conservation program, the state’s owner-operator law and the culture of stewardship and community that continues to sustain us.

In times of plenty, it is important to be thankful for all we have. It is also a good time to think about how we can be better. I’m not talking about being better simply for the sake of being better. But better as a way of making sure future days are as good as these today.

There is much about Maine’s lobster fishery that we must always fight to maintain. The MLA is frequently in the midst of those battles in order to preserve our traditions, our fishery and our way of life.

But neither the MLA nor lobstermen themselves are perfect. I was reminded of the many struggles that our industry continues to face during a recent spate of conferences I attended. They spanned issues from the entanglement of large whales in lobster gear and the bycatch of cod and cusk in lobster traps to the amount of lost or derelict fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine and management of herring stocks. To each of you as individual lobstermen, these issues probably seem like nonsense. But when you think about them as an industry issue, it’s pretty clear that we have our work cut out for us.

Times are good in Maine’s lobster fishery yet there are certain practices that may need to improve. MLA photo.
Times are good in Maine’s lobster fishery yet there are certain practices that may need to improve. MLA photo.

When it comes to large whales, we all know the story. Fishing gear continues to entangle whales. Unfortunately, we don’t really know how whales are getting entangled, where whales are getting entangled or what we should do to prevent them from getting entangled. We don’t even know how much of the gear on whales comes from Maine’s lobster fishery, though we do know that there is some. I know that most Maine lobstermen have never seen a right whale, and probably never will. With so much lobster gear out there and so few whales, coming across an entangled whale is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is the scale of our fishery — the sheer number of lobster traps and distance from the coast that we cover — that makes the whale issue so hard for us to deal with.

Then there is the issue of our impact on cod and cusk populations, two fish species that are struggling, and occasionally make their way into lobster traps. There’s no good data on how many of these fish are caught in our traps, if they go back dead or alive, or where along our coast we might interact with them. Again, it is the scale of our fishery that makes cod and cusk bycatch so hard for us to deal with and the potential for federal rules to really hurt.

Then there is the issue of marine debris or, in our case, derelict fishing gear. I went to a conference that focused specifically on the problem of lost fishing gear. Researchers and nonprofit clean-up crews are documenting massive piles of lobster traps along Maine’s remote islands, large amounts of fishing debris along the New England coast and huge gear balls on the bottom. There are concerns about the impact of lost lobster gear on nesting sea birds and other species that may get trapped within them. And lost gear along the coast is an eyesore. The sheer magnitude of derelict lobster gear is staggering. As individual business owners, of course you try not to lose gear; traps are expensive! You may only lose a handful each year. But with millions of traps fished annually, that can add up to a lot of derelict traps. It is the scale of the lobster fishery that makes dealing with lost gear so difficult.

Then there is our favorite fish, the Atlantic herring. Having a local, fresh and sustainable source of bait has allowed the Maine lobster fishery to grow into the economic backbone of the coast. Researchers estimate that the Maine fishery consumes nearly all of the herring harvested each year from the Gulf of Maine – 100,000 metric tons of fish. Regional and federal managers currently are contemplating how herring harvests will be set in the future. How much of the herring resource should be dedicated to commercial harvest; how much should be left in the ecosystem as forage for other marine species such as whales, tuna, fish and seabirds? How would the lobster industry adapt if the commercial allocation of herring was cut by 25% or more? There are a lot of lobstermen fishing today and each one needs a lot of bait to execute our fishery at its current scale.

After this recent round of meetings and conferences, I can’t help but feel that the size of our fishery has become our Achilles’ heel. The impact of each individual lobsterman is minimal, but the cumulative impact of the industry is hard to ignore. Fishing 200, 400 or 800 traps, you say, does little harm. But when you multiply that by 4,000 or so active lobstermen, you see that we are dealing with more than 2 million lobster traps in the water.

Maine lobstermen must start to think about our footprint – not as individuals – but collectively as an industry. We must always fight to keep our owner-operator law in place so the fishery does not become corporately owned and continues to directly support thousands of Maine families along the coast. But it does no good to ignore our collective impact.

When I think about what may come next with whales, groundfish bycatch, herring or derelict gear, I have to wonder in this time of plenty if our industry could do more with less. Less what? Perhaps fewer months fishing, less area fished, fewer lobstermen, fewer traps? I really don’t know how we reduce the scale of our fishery, but it’s a question worth asking and a question that could have as many answers as we have lobstermen. I leave the question to you to ponder.

It’s a privilege to be a lobsterman during times of plenty, but nevertheless we will face some tough issues ahead. We’ve certainly done a lot right over the years and there is much about this industry that should not change. Still, there are some changes that perhaps each lobsterman should be thinking about and that our industry as a whole should be discussing. Fish smarter, not harder!

As always, stay safe on the water.

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