BAR HARBOR — Any Maine lobsterman with a federal lobster permit may now be contacted by federal fishery observers asking to send a representative on his or her boat for a day. That was the message from Maine Department of Marine Resources lobster scientist Kathleen Reardon to fishermen at a Zone B council meeting last week. If asked, hosting the observer is mandatory for fishermen as a condition of their federal permit.
The Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP) has been in the news this year over disputes about who pays to send observers on commercial fishing boats, but that controversy has been in the groundfish industry.
Lobstermen are not going to be asked to cover cost of federal observers, Reardon said. “This is a different program than the conversation that’s going on with groundfish. The Standard Bycatch Reporting Methodology (SBRM) program has existed for a number of years now, but NOAA has been using their discretion as to which fisheries to look at. They’re paying attention to lobster because of a lawsuit over bycatch reduction.”
Regulators are looking for better data on how many of certain fish species, such as cod and cusk, come up in lobster traps as bycatch. But the data from the observer program is used by several different NOAA Fisheries departments and programs.
“Because they’re trying to provide information for so many different programs, they’re asked to do a lot. They’re trying to cross all needs for any of the scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center: stock assessment, protected species, bycatch reduction,” Reardon said.
That makes it difficult to design a study.
“On advice from the states and industry, we changed the sampling frame starting January 1 of this year,” Glenn Chamberlain of the Fisheries Sampling Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center said.
It used to be that only vessels that submit federal Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs) could be contacted to host an observer. VTRs are currently only required for fishermen who carry more than one federal fishing permit (i.e. fish for tuna or another species as well as lobster). That only applies to about 160 lobster boats in Maine, Reardon said.
Reardon said she and others were worried that the current program led to skewed data.
“Massachusetts had more trips [with federal observers] than we did in Maine” because there are more boats there submitting VTRs, she said. “So the distribution of coverage was incorrect when you look at landings and how many trips happen.
“If they are looking at the weight of the lobster catch, most of our lobster catch happens in eastern Maine. The scary thing is when you have a dataset that’s being collected is the best information they have available, yet it’s biased towards Massachusetts, where our data would suggest that more fish are being caught (as bycatch) in western Maine than eastern Maine.”
So, extrapolating from the limited data would lead federal regulators to think fish bycatch in the Maine lobster industry is a bigger problem than it is. That could lead to less-than-ideal management measures.
“Everyone was interested in seeing coverage spread out to be more representative,” Chamberlain said. So they recommended the change to include all federal permit holders in the observer program.
Reardon and Chamberlain said state and federal fisheries managers are looking at ways to collaborate more and avoid duplicating research effort.
The Maine DMR has been operating its sea sampling program similar to NEFOP since 1985, Reardon said. Offshore waters, an increasingly important part of the fishery, are outside the scope of the state agency.
Reardon sits on the lobster technical committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which works on the species stock assessment. “We would be really interested if the federal government would fund some sampling in offshore areas,” she said.
The logistics and aims of the state and federal programs are slightly different. The DMR has the ability to be more flexible in scheduling trips. “Federal observer trips have to be random, where we find people who are willing to participate. Fisherman can say, ‘Today doesn’t really work,’ and we just call someone else.”
The state sea sampling program has not been focused on bycatch, but they have begun collecting data on it. This year, that will include whether cod or cusk swam away alive when released, Reardon said.
“They’re covering so many different fisheries. That is where we ran into problems with protocol for samplers,” Reardon said. Because the sampling protocols in the past were primarily based on drag fisheries or gill net fisheries, they’re organized by fish “hauls.” In the lobster fishery, it’s not obvious what a “haul” is – is it one trap, one trawl of, say, twelve traps, or something else?
Lobster is also one of the only fisheries where the fish are going to the market alive, so they must get into water or back overboard very quickly to avoid damage.