Concerned by the apparent decline among lobstermen in V-notching egg-bearing female lobster, a Downeast lobsterman has decided to take action. He is collaborating with Brooks Trap Mill to provide all
newly licensed lobstermen in the state with a V-notch tool in 2018. “So many don’t notch. It’s all about speed,” the 38-year-old lobsterman, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “We are benefiting right now from the stewardship of previous generations. I started on deck and learned that V-notching is simply what you do. But it’s not happening anymore.”
The practice of cutting a small notch in a female’s tail flipper began in 1917 in Maine as a voluntary measure and became mandatory in 2002. In 2008, nearly 82% of female lobsters in samples collected by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) bore a V-notch. By 2013 that number had dropped to 61%. Samples taken in Zone A showed that only 50% of females in that zone bore a V-notch in 2013.
The importance of V-notching is not solely as a measure to ensure a sustainable lobster population for lobstermen in the future. It also influences the lobster stock assessment model used by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). As Carl Wilson, DMR’s Science Bureau director, stated at the 2017 Maine Fishermen’s Forum, “V-notching allows the female to grow larger. A larger female means more eggs. [The ASMFC is] working on the next stock assessment for lobster. The lower V-notch rate is being factored in. Different scenarios show different declines. If the rate is 50% down, then in 30 years the population crashes.”
At the start of the 20th century, Maine lobstermen balked at nearly all rules that constrained their ability to catch lobsters. But slowly a sea change took place in the fishery. By the time the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s, lobstermen felt that illegal fishing was causing low landings. They began to support conservation laws, including an oversize measurement, to bolster their catches. A few lobstermen began to encourage others to V-notch egg-bearing females.
By the late-1940s, after many lobstermen had returned from World War II, a majority of lobstermen understood the need for conservation of lobster stocks and began V-notching in earnest. University of Maine professor Jim Acheson quotes Maine Lobstermen’s Association past president Ed Blackmore as saying, “We decided that if we were going to keep it going, we needed to do something to replenish the supply. We knew that V-notched lobsters were protected and we decided to put more lobsters in that category. When I had an especially good day, I would notch one or two big egged females as a way of investing in the future of the industry. We didn’t have to do it, but the idea caught on and a lot of people began to preserve the proven eggers in this way.” (The Evolution of the Maine Lobster V-Notch Practice: Cooperation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game”, James Acheson and Roy Gardner, 2011.)
In 1982, the MLA started its own V-notch monitoring project, held each year during a week in early October. The Department of Marine Resources has collected data since 1985 on V-notched lobsters through its at-sea sampling program. In 2002, the Maine Legislature made V-notching mandatory in part to meet the requirements of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s lobster management plan. But as with much in the lobster fishery, enforcement of the law takes place more through the pressure of lobstermen themselves than through the Marine Patrol Officers.
“It’s like putting money in the bank,” said MLA president David Cousens of South Thomaston. “It doesn’t take that much time and it’s essential for the future of lobstermen. Everyone knows that.”
Brooks Trap Mill hopes that providing all newly licensed lobstermen with a v-notching tool will help them to continue the legacy of stewardship and investing in the future of the lobster industry.