ELLSWORTH — Ask a lobsterman how the fishing is, and the answer is likely to be vague. Ask a lobsterman exactly where he sets his gear, how deep the water is, and how long he lets his traps soak on the bottom between hauls, let alone how he baits up and how many lobsters he takes out of each trap, and the response, if any, is likely to be hostile.
Last week, though, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to require all Maine lobster harvesters to start reporting just that kind of data within the next five years despite overwhelming opposition from the state’s lobster industry and objections from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The new requirements are contained in an “addendum” to the fisheries management plan for American lobster adopted by the commission at its annual winter meeting last week in Arlington, Va. The commission also approved a separate addendum to the management plan for Jonah crab.
According to the commission, the new rule will “improve the spatial resolution of harvester data collection” by requiring more precise identification of the location where fishing activities occur. It also “expands the required harvester reporting data elements, establishes a timeline for increased harvester reporting in the American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries, and prioritizes the development of electronic harvester reporting.”
The increase in harvester reporting is from the current 10 percent, selected at random from among all Maine commercial lobster license holders, to 100 percent. The “timeline” to achieve that level of reporting is five years.
During the intervening five years, Maine will have to improve the way it selects the 10 percent of harvesters who do report. Currently, because selection is random, the selection could include license holders who fish only part-time, or not at all. There also is no assurance that the chosen 10 percent will fairly represent fishing effort along the entire Maine coast or in offshore as opposed to nearshore waters.
“We are certainly disappointed with the vote,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, on Monday.
According to McCarron, the commission’s own technical committee analysis “showed a very high confidence in the data we are currently collecting with 10 percent of harvesters reporting.”
Aside from the time burden imposed by increased reporting and the fishermen’s objections to handing over more information they consider private to some distant bureaucracy, the potential cost of the program was one reason why DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher opposed the requirement.
“Going to 100 percent is going to cost the state, going to cost you, a half-million dollars,” Keliher said last month at a public hearing on the proposed addenda in Ellsworth.
Last Friday, DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said that the proposal actually adopted appeared to solve that issue.
“While the Commissioner initially opposed 100 percent harvester reporting partly because of an estimated $500,000-per-year cost to the state,” Nichols said, “he was able to support the motion after securing agreement that reporting would be done electronically.” Reporting will use methods and equipment developed “in cooperation” with an existing state-federal organization, the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program. The program already collects marine fisheries data for use by fishery managers, scientists and fishermen.
“This is a decision that means Maine won’t have to bear the cost of additional reporting or the development of the electronic reporting system,” Nichols said. “The commissioner is comfortable with the five-year time frame because it will allow for the development of technology that is functional and easy to use for harvesters.”
Still, McCarron expressed the feelings of many lobstermen Monday, saying “It seems like overkill to collect so much additional data when so little knowledge is gained in return, given the costs associated with implementing a 100 percent harvester reporting program.”
New reporting rules also were adopted for the small but growing Jonah crab fishery. According to the commission, since the early 2000s, Jonah crab landings have grown by 650 percent, peaking at more than 17 million pounds in 2014.
Massachusetts has the largest fishery, with about 70 percent of the landings, followed by Rhode Island with about 25 percent. The fishery is growing in Maine, but as of 2016, the DMR did not publish separate landings data for Jonah crab.
The new rules will now go to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review before they become effective. Also going to the federal fisheries authorities are three “recommendations for actions in federal waters,” beyond the 3-mile state waters limit, regulated by the NMFS. They include harvester reporting to get more data about the growing offshore lobster fishery, electronic vessel tracking similar to that already used in on groundfish vessels and a biological sampling program.