On March 31, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Lobster Management Board voted to require federally permitted vessels fishing for lobster and Jonah crab to use electronic vessel tracking devices next year. Vessels from Maine to North Carolina must use the devices.
The ASMFC developed a low-cost cellular based technology to track each vessel at the rate of one ping per minute. A “ping” is a data point — including the date, time, latitude, longitude, and a vessel identifier — released by the device to a receiver. It shows where the boat is in time and space; the ping rate reveals whether the vessel is moving or hauling traps.
ASMFC will work with the states to help cover the costs associated with purchase and installation of the devices including service plans for up to three years. The money will come from $14 million included in the federal Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill to help the lobster industry comply with new whale rules. Implementation date of the new requirement is December 15, 2023.
A Working Group is being created to oversee the details of the new requirement, said Caitlin Starks, fisheries management plan coordinator at the ASMFC. “The Working Group will put out a request to companies that make electronic tracking devices so it can evaluate if those devices are appropriate, then put out a list of approved devices,” she said.
The data will inform federal and state agencies on where fishermen operate, at what times of the year, and on the health of the lobster and Jonah crab stocks. With additional data, regulators will have a better sense of how fishermen might interact with right whales or proposed offshore wind energy projects, among other activities.
Lobstermen, who currently are not required to provide precise information on where they fish, are suspicious that providing location data could be used against them when it comes to siting wind farms or closing off additional areas of the Gulf of Maine to protect right whales.
“We understand that people are concerned [about tracking data being used against them]. But this [requirement] is to better define where fishing grounds are,” Starks said. “Finer-scale data can help to not close off large sections of the ocean. With a finer scale, measures can be honed, effective, and not as broad.”
Fishermen move about to catch lobsters within any given area based on the weather, the time of the year, or a number of other factors. Those specific areas may change from year to year, particularly as the Gulf of Maine continues its inexorable warming. By producing better data year after year, the tracking devices can provide a better sense of broader fishing patterns largely unrecognized to date, according to Starks.
“Lobstermen say that their fishery is not static, that it moves around. The longer we have good data, the more we can show that it does move around,” she said. “Continuous data shows that whales move around too. We need this data because where there is uncertainty [because of a lack of data] then regulations won’t change because people are cautious.”
Federally permitted vessels, whether they are fishing in federal or state waters, must always have the device on. Fishermen are concerned that they may be penalized if the device doesn’t work for some reason or may lose fishing time tied up at the dock waiting for someone to repair it. In addition, they are worried that they may find themselves in trouble if they take their boat out for a cruise some weekend or take the family out for an evening picnic.
“We don’t care about someone taking their boat and family out on a weekend or for recreational use. We just want to know when transiting and hauling,” Starks emphasized. “We have algorithms to look at trip reports and tracks and how they match up.”