At the opening plenary session of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission annual meeting at the Bar Harbor Club Monday, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, left, chats with ASMFC Executive Director Bob Beal and state Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County). ISLANDER PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Fisheries managers model cooperation

BAR HARBOR — Fisheries management can be a complex undertaking, as managers seek to combine marine science, policy, economics and the interests of fishing communities.

Since President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the bill creating it in 1942, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has sought to be a forum to “get people together to start talking,” representatives of the group said at the beginning of their 75th annual meeting Monday at the Bar Harbor Club. The meeting was scheduled to continue through Oct. 27.

The ASMFC is a collaborative of its 15 member states, not a federal entity, but it works closely with both state fisheries regulators and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service. It has 27 marine species under monitoring and management, from American eel to winter flounder, from coastal sharks to spiny dogfish. Each species has its own management board, technical committee and advisory panel.

The commission has been successful as a referee when stakeholders disagree, said Phil Coates, former ASMFC commissioner.

“When it works well, it’s one-stop-shopping: the scientists advise, the commissioners decide, and we walk out of there knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “Bringing people together and having them talk to each other has been important.”

After World War II, Coates said, the ASMFC began to study the effects of industrial pollution on coastal fisheries. Part of the impetus was interest from the growing sport-fishing sector, including many returning GIs. In the 1960s, coastal development presented a new concern for fish habitat. Fisheries science was a growing field, and many of its “best and brightest” went to work for state and federal agencies.

Compliance with fishery management plans developed by the ASMFC was voluntary until 1993, when the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act helped give “teeth” to their management rules, said former Commissioner Susan Shipman.

Under that law, the U.S. secretary of commerce may impose a moratorium on harvesting a particular species in a state’s waters if harvesting practices there are found to be out of compliance with a management plan. That law has been challenged and upheld in court, Shipman said. States facing moratoria always have come back into compliance.

Of greatest interest to Maine fishing communities these days are lobster, eels and northern shrimp. Herring and menhaden are popular choices for lobster bait, so they’re also on the radar for fishermen here.

Robert Steneck of the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences gave an entertaining overview of commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine, and in Penobscot Bay in particular, from 2000 B.C. to the present.

He explained the evolution from the cod and haddock fishery of the 18th and 19th centuries to today’s nearly exclusive focus on lobster, which he calls Maine’s “gilded trap.”

“Sea urchin, lobster and crab populations used to be held in check by big coastal predators,” he said. “In the 2000s, the coast of Maine is nearly predator-free. It’s what I call the domestication of this ecosystem.”

Steneck said that while a warming trend in the North Atlantic is likely to stress the lobster population, other species such as black sea bass and red hake are increasing in abundance here.

He emphasized the benefits of close communication with fishermen since they’re the first to observe environmental changes. When an “ocean heat wave” hit in 2012, he said, “the fishermen knew about it first, and they adapted first.

“We must reinvent fisheries management so fishermen can become better stewards of their fishing grounds,” he continued. “That’s going to help us as we go into all the challenges related to climate change.”

The American Lobster Management Board was set to meet from 1-4 p.m. on Oct. 27. Trap limits, lobster reporting, Jonah crab and deep-sea coral were all on the agenda for that meeting.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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