Bait and Switch

lobster claw

🎨 Mike O'Leary

In a tug-of-war between lobstermen and regulators over catch reporting, Mainers didn’t get the deal they expected.

It’s no secret that rising water temps in the Gulf of Maine will have a majorly bad impact on lobsters. One recent study anticipates the population falling off by half in the next 30 years, on account of lower survival rates for eggs and increased predation. Those lobsters that remain will migrate to cooler waters, farther offshore and farther north. That’s why the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate body that regulates conservation and management, wants Maine lobstermen to report the quantity and location of all their catches. Lobstermen, eternally wary of regulation and protective of fishing spots, aren’t happy with the idea. “People here think it’s ridiculous,” says Julie Eaton, who fishes out of Stonington. “They think it’s an invasion of their privacy and another example of Big Brother sticking their nose in where it’s really not needed.”

Regulators argue that the measure is for lobstermen’s own good. “More and more data needs are being asked of us to defend these fishing areas,” says Toni Kerns, director of the commission’s management program. Long-term warming trends aren’t about to reverse, and the more researchers and regulators know about what’s going on in the gulf, the better they can shape policy to help fisheries adapt. “If we don’t have that data to protect them,” Kerns adds, “we’ll be at a disadvantage.” Besides, lobstermen in the 14 other member states have already reached 100 percent reporting voluntarily, so how onerous can it really be?

It seems, quite frankly, unnecessary. We don’t need everybody up there counting lobsters.

Well, Maine is different. For starters, the lobster biz here is substantially larger than in any other state. Under Maine’s current reporting regimen, 10 percent of lobstermen are annually selected at random to disclose their catches, and opponents point out that this limited system still generates more data than comes from all the other states combined. And some Maine officials bemoan the extra bureaucratic rigmarole, estimating the reporting process would cost the state some $500,000 a year.

Meg Ware, the commission’s plan management coordinator, says the majority of letters she received during the comment period came from Mainers who hated the proposal. In January, 40 or so lobstermen turned up on a snowy night in Ellsworth to voice their opposition at a public-comment session. “My position, really the state’s position, is the status quo,” Maine Department of Marine Resources head and interstate commission vice-chair Patrick Keliher said at the meeting, according to The Ellsworth American.

“I think we’ve got a real good shot at that.”

In February, the commission convened at its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Although Maine’s lobster industry dwarfs other states’, representation on the commission isn’t proportional. It’s a one-state, one-vote system, putting Keliher in an unenviable position, stuck between ardent opposition at home and an insurmountable majority in Arlington. At the meeting — streamed live online — Keliher related an anecdote about how at dinner the previous night, his waiter hadn’t known where Maine was. “He thought we were part of Canada,” Keliher said, then wondered aloud whether his colleagues didn’t share that confusion.

In the end, the ayes had it — and even Keliher threw in his lot with the rest, on the condition that the new rule wouldn’t kick in for another five years, giving time to design a more efficient, less costly reporting system.

Nonetheless, the outcome hasn’t sat well with Mainers. “We’re obviously disappointed,” says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s a big ask. And it seems, quite frankly, unnecessary. We don’t have a lot of resources and we don’t need everybody up there counting lobsters.” Julie Eaton, the Stonington lobsterwoman, says her whole community is upset. “Granted it’s one sheet of paper, but when you’ve hauled your butt off all day, it’s just one more step,” she says. “But this too we’ll deal with.”

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Jesse Ellison

Jesse Ellison is a Down East contributing editor.

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