Preparing for the future

First published in Landings, September, 2016

In May this year Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher made a motion at a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Lobster Management Board. It wasn’t a casual gesture. Keliher and DMR biologists were concerned that the environmental factors that had overwhelmed the southern New England lobster fishery during the past two decades could ultimately affect lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine. To be prepared for any changes, Maine needed more data and information than currently existed.


DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher.

“I’ve spent the last two years on the Lobster Board listening to hours and hours of discussion about what to do about the southern New England lobster stock. Those discussions are a day late and a dollar short,” Keliher said emphatically. “We need to be well in front of the ‘what ifs’.”
Keliher’s motion to the Board requested that it look at seven different areas that he felt reflected critical data needs that were as yet unmet or inadequate [see sidebar]. The motion passed unanimously.

“We had just heard four or five hours of very disturbing evidence of the extent of the southern New England collapse. We realized that whatever management changes were made now could not make up for natural changes [in the environment]. The committee was overwhelmingly in favor of getting ahead of whatever changes were coming our way,” Keliher said.

It has often been the case that when government officials want to delay taking action, they call for “more data!” Keliher, however, believes that it is his department’s responsibility (or, as he refers to it, “due diligence”) to ensure that there are adequate data to make informed decisions well before anything dire happens to the state’s lobster fishery upon which so many communities depend.

“The biggest thing in my mind is to determine if we are starting to see changes in the biomass,” he said, referring to data that show lobster settlement has declined in state waters during the past four years. “We need to learn if the change is due to them settling in different places, such as offshore, or if the settlement is going down.” He noted that data from both DMR’s ventless trap sampling and sea sampling on board lobster boats indicate that there are more small lobsters appearing in deep water.

Keliher, who served as the DMR director of Sea-run Fisheries before becoming commissioner, also recognizes the problem that making assumptions about causes can present. “You can’t assume. Science has to be the driver [of any management decisions]. Now is the time to get the data when things are still in good shape,” he said. “It’s much cheaper to get the answers to questions now than later as has happened in southern New England, where the fishery is a disaster.”

He emphasized that the Maine lobster fishery remains robust. “The sky is not falling. There are troubling signs but landings are still strong. The ventless trap program doesn’t show any big downstream problem arising.”

The Technical Committee will report to the Lobster Board at the ASMFC’s winter meeting on the tasks contained in Keliher’s May motion. If the Technical Committee is unable to answer those questions, the questions then become a Research Priority for the ASFMC.

The motion is intended to pull together existing information and to gather new data which will provide state and regional fisheries managers the tools they need to sustain lobster populations:

1. Synthesize current literature and studies which investigate the connectivity between the GOM/GBK stock and Canada:

The motion calls for a synthesis of existing scientific literature which investigates the connection between the GOM/GBK stocks and Canadian stocks.

2. Plot changes in size distribution of egg-bearing females over time in the GOM/GBK stock:

The Technical Committee will also review changes in the size at which lobsters become mature in the GOM/GBK.

3. Describe changes in GOM ocean currents and how this could be affecting larval supply patterns:

Ocean currents within the Gulf of Maine will also be examined to assess how they impact important indicators of health like larval settlement.

4. Investigate the stock-recruit relationship in the GOM/GBK stock:

This relationship between the parent stock and the eventual recruitment resulting from spawning activity provides an important biological indicator for managers.

5. Review on-going research on GOM lobster in order to identify research holes and prioritize the importance of these data holes to effective management:

It is important to improve and synthesize existing research, but it is also necessary to identify research that does not exist that is necessary to accomplish management objectives.

6. Examine the competing biological management measures between Area 1, 3 and the Outer Cape Cod to look at the benefits of harmonizing these measures:

Differing biological measures among Areas 1, 3 and the Outer Cape Cod Management Area will be reviewed to determine if they should and can be made consistent.

7. Investigate and develop a Traffic Light Analysis for the GOM/GBK stock:

A Traffic Light Analysis includes a combination of economic and biological indices. It provides a graphical interpretation that simplifies analysis of multiple, complex indicators and their relationships to each other and a larger management plan. A Traffic Light Analysis will incorporate average harvest and abundance values over the past 10 years as well as indices like the settlement and ventless trap surveys, trawl survey data, landing information, and other indices as recommended by the Technical Committee.