In December 2019, $1.6 million in federal funds were re-appropriated to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to support recovery actions for the North Atlantic right whale. The funds are intended to assist the lobster fishery in adapting to the new Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP) measures, which are due to be finalized in May 2021. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) received notice in November that it had been awarded $600,000 by the ASMFC to support harvester reporting efforts and $250,000 to help with adoption of ALWTRP measures.
“Increased harvester reporting will close these data gaps and provide a complete picture of activity in the Maine lobster fishery. It will also allow for the effectiveness of implemented regulations to be assessed, particularly for the reduction of vertical lines in the fishery,” explained Caitlin Starks, ASMFC lobster fishery management plan coordinator.
In January 2020, the DMR submitted the state’s right whale plan to NMFS, which included 100% harvester reporting as a conservation measure. Under the ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Plan Addendum XXVI, the Maine lobster fishery must move to 100% harvester reporting by January 1, 2024. This Addendum also established a one-year pilot program to test electronic tracking devices on federal lobster fishing vessels, which is separate from the harvester reporting program.
Currently 10% of Maine lobster license holders are randomly selected each year to complete harvester reporting. While this level of reporting is enough to obtain general estimates of lobster catch, it does not provide much information on fishing effort or location, which has proved a critical deficiency in discussions about new right whale rules. The number of vertical lines used by lobstermen and their location has only been estimated from this reporting, which has resulted in broad assumptions about the spatial distribution of the Maine lobster fleet and the industry’s overlap with right whales.
To meet the 100% harvester reporting goal stated in its whale plan submitted to NMFS, DMR funded creation of a new offline mobile application through a contract with Blue Fin Technologies. The application will accept reports from all fisheries and meet NMFS electronic reporting requirements. Most importantly, it will allow lobstermen to report electronically via their phone, reducing the number of paper reports received by DMR.
Even with electronic harvester reporting, managing that much data will be a daunting task for the agency. The Maine lobster fishery comprises roughly 40% of all Atlantic coast commercial fishing trips taken each year. One hundred percent harvester reporting will require staff to provide technical support, process and analyze a massive amount of data, and be ready to address licensing issues.
The $600,000 grant will help DMR support six of the ten positions necessary to manage 100% reporting, which the agency believes can begin in 2023. “Given DMR included the transition of the lobster fishery to 100% harvester reporting in its whale proposal to NMFS, these represent real costs associated with implementing regulations pertaining to right whale conservation and risk reduction,” Starks noted. The allocated funds will be sufficient to support the positions until late 2023.
Without outside or state funding, Maine lobstermen might have to assume these costs. Based on approximately 6,000 current license holders, each lobsterman would face an annual charge of roughly $100. “Using a portion of the funds set aside to assist the lobster fishery in adapting to the impacts of new right whale management measures mitigates this upcoming cost to industry,” Stark said. It also provides critical interim funding as DMR works to secure a long-term funding source to avoid any annual cost to lobstermen.