A long, indented coast. Small boats operating from small harbors. Sharp contrasts in tides, current, bottom features. The complex elements of the Maine coast have created a complicated fishery, one whose management has evolved over time into a surprisingly collegial system controlled by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and by lobstermen themselves.
It wasn’t always so.
Back in the 1980s, lobstermen and resource managers were at odds. A computer model used by the New England Fishery Management Council, then the lead management entity for the Maine lobster fishery, was a strict one, based on analysis of how many eggs per female lobster were produced in a given year.
“Then they thought that lobsters were being harvested too soon. The minimum size had to be increased or the stock would crash,” recalled Bob Steneck, professor of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy at the University of Maine. The model did not incorporate various elements, such as the sharp drop in predatory codfish, warming waters, or even the V-notching done by Maine lobstermen to protect female lobsters. “The data came primarily from NMFS trawl data, which didn’t include Maine waters,” Steneck continued. “Maine began the inshore trawl survey in 2000. In a single trawl they would take more lobsters than in all the trawls NMFS had done in the Gulf of Maine. The federal scientists didn’t know what was going on.”
By the early 1990s the process of moving management authority for the Maine lobster fishery from the Council to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) had begun. The multi-state Commission set the management plans for fish stocks that transit state borders. As a primarily inshore species, ASMFC would allow states to work together to manage the fishery, rather than management flowing top down from the federal government.
“At that time the lobster fishery was more concentrated on shore than offshore. Lobstermen were the first to see the changes going on then,” Steneck said.
In the early 1990s, University of Maine fisheries science professor Yong Chen analyzed the egg per recruitment model used developed by federal scientists and found serious flaws in it. Eventually ASMFC discarded the model for an approach that draws on numerous data sources. Steneck’s lobster research also helped prompt that shift.
“I was diving in Thread of Life study area (in South Bristol) studying limpets. I saw a lot of young lobsters and I thought ‘how’s this possible given the fishing pressure?’ I approached lobstermen at the South Bristol Co-op and asked them if we could remove their traps from the area and see what happened. You should have heard the laughter,” Steneck said.
But several members, including the late Arnie Gamage, were curious as well. While the study was underway, Gamage and other lobstermen would pull up to Steneck’s boat and ask about the work. “It was a joint project,” Steneck said.
Lobstermen chafed at resource managers who contended at the time that the lobster population was under threat and about to crash when what they were seeing was exactly the opposite. But bit by bit, the adversarial relationship between lobstermen and scientists changed. Steneck and other researchers reached out to lobstermen to collaborate in studies in response to what the lobstermen themselves were seeing. The back-and-forth between the two groups wasn’t always smooth but, over time, built a foundation of respect.
In 1996 the state Legislature passed a law that allowed certain aspects of DMR’s regulatory authority over the state waters lobster fishery to move into the hands of seven regional lobster zone councils. Those councils, whose members were elected from smaller districts within each region, were given the power to set trap limits, rules for entry into the fishery, and other measures. It was a dramatic declaration that the Maine lobster fishery was in fact a collection of many distinct smaller fisheries conducted in ways that adapt to individual regions of the coast.
“It all comes back to the zone councils,” said Kathleen Reardon, DMR’s lobster biologist. The local structure of the zone councils has allowed the management process to be much more closely tied to the different areas of the coast, according to Reardon. “Management here is a lot more local than in other places, in my opinion. The zone councils make recommendation to the Lobster Advisory Council and to the Marine Resources Committee [in the legislature]. It’s hierarchical but it goes both ways. Maine’s management system has more opportunity to engage lobstermen earlier in the process,” she said.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the zone council system has been put to the test. The ability to meet face-to-face has been constricted for much of the time yet the zone councils continued to meet and debate contentious issues with DMR staff via online meetings. It works, according to Reardon, because council members take their duties to heart. “The councils represent a network of people who are engaged and interested in the fishery. They are elected to represent their fellow fishermen from that area. They feel a responsibility to learn about what’s happening and share that with their districts.”
In addition, the rapport between DMR’s growing staff of researchers and lobstermen continues to remain strong. Reardon began work at DMR in 2000 when the agency was ramping up its lobster research capabilities. “A large number of lobstermen have been involved in DMR’s surveys during my time. And now the kids of some of those lobstermen are taking part. It’s pretty amazing. We rely on these long-term relationships,” she said.
“DMR is populated by well-trained scientists who have a more holistic understanding of the lobster stocks. Our fishery management science is as good as I could hope for,” Steneck noted. “In the last 30 years we’ve built confidence between scientists and lobstermen.”
V-notching lobsters is an example of the link between lobstermen and management. Placing a V-notch in the tail of a female lobster is a conservation action long taken by lobstermen to ensure that females are not landed. “It has been a huge benefit to the lobster population. Because of V-notching there is more brood stock,” Reardon said. “It has greatly contributed to the resiliency of the fishery.”
Both Steneck and Reardon are concerned about how the fishery will respond to ongoing environmental changes sweeping through the Gulf of Maine. “Change is going on in the Gulf and I don’t think we understand the magnitude of the impact on the lobster population,” Reardon commented. “My biggest worry is change, period.”
She noted that Joshua Carloni, a research scientist in New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Division, had found a correlation between the abundance of a key copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, and the abundance of stage 4 larval lobsters in the western Gulf of Maine. Calanus finmarchicus thrives in colder waters, and the Gulf’s rapid warming has already had an impact on its prevalence.
“It’s hard to predict the future. And it’s hard not knowing or understanding the magnitude of the impacts that will come about because of that change,” Reardon said. Fortunately for the state, Maine lobstermen and scientists are committed to working together to ensure the stability of the fishery; Maine’s lobster zone council system will continue to keep lobstermen an integral part of future management decisions.