It is the state’s largest fishery, bringing in more than $500 million a year and employing tens of thousands of people up and down the supply chain, but there is no map that shows exactly where Maine’s lobstermen trap their catch.

Most of them fish within 3 miles of the coast, and thus do not fill out detailed federal catch reports or have onboard satellite tracking systems that lend themselves to detailed maps of valuable fishing territories.

That suits many lobstermen just fine, because they say their territory changes from year to year and they don’t like the notion of the government tracking where they fish. But that attitude makes life difficult for regulatory agencies responsible for permitting non-fishing activities in the Gulf of Maine, such as wind farms or mining operations.

The lack of detailed, up-to-date maps of lobster fishing grounds is obvious when reviewing the hundreds of maps collected by the Northeast Regional Planning Body, the federal planning body that is overseeing the nation’s regional ocean planning from the Gulf of Maine to Long Island Sound. The council is building a trove of online data, maps and information tracking a wide range of coastal and marine activities, from popular cruise ship routes to protected marine mammal habitats to public beaches and beach restoration projects.

TRYING TO FILL THE INFORMATION GAP

The data portal has maps that paint a detailed picture of other fisheries, with current and historical views of the number of fishermen who work any given area for each species of groundfish and how much they are catching in each area. But the information about lobstering is limited to a few lobster biomass maps and management area maps.

The Island Institute, a nonprofit group out of Rockland that represents the interests of Maine’s island and more remote coastal communities, is trying to step up to fill that gap, if not with maps, then with voices from the lobstering industry.

The group has issued a report on the “spatial characterization” of the lobster fishery, which is government-speak for what a map of the lobster industry would look like if such a map existed, said Nick Battista, marine programs director for the institute and part of the team that produced the report.

The report summarizes past efforts to create such a map, which, with the absence of detailed fishing trip reports or onboard tracking devices, have meant a costly, time-consuming tour of Maine’s far-flung fishing harbors to interview lobstermen. That process produces maps that are out of date by the time they are published, Battista said.

One out of 10 Maine lobstermen is required to turn in his fishing logs each year – unlike in Massachusetts, where all lobstermen have to do that – so even the Maine Department of Marine Resources doesn’t have a census count of where state lobstermen actually hunt their catch.

The agency does get detailed reports from lobster dealers, however, which enables it to measure the exact size of the state’s total catch, if not who is catching them. The state has estimated that a census of all lobster catch would cost it a few million dollars a year to oversee.

Even though they don’t have a map, the department and Maine Marine Patrol know who is fishing where and how good the fishing is, Battista said. Federal permitting agencies and developers who want to include lobster fishermen in their planning process can begin by talking to their state partners, who can point them to the local fishermen who work a certain area, he said. And while the lobstermen might not want to hand over fishing maps to the government, some have agreed to share data to help minimize a specific project’s impact on a fishing ground, he said.

FIRSTHAND DATA FROM LOBSTERMEN

In 2010 and 2011, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association joined with the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to interview over 200 lobstermen to draw up a map of their fishing grounds, including what time of the season they fished them, how many traps they set and how much they would catch in a given location. The interviews were conducted when federal regulators were considering rules to protect whales from getting entangled in the lines that connect lobster pots to one another and the floating buoys that lobstermen use to locate and haul their traps aboard.

Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said it took a staff member from a trusted industry group almost two years to conduct the interviews that led to the maps produced by Woods Hole and a demographer from Keene State College.

“We actually got the fishermen to sit down and draw circles on the maps of where they fished, every month, and what they got there,” McCarron said. “It was the first time something like that had ever been done.”

She described that map as a baseline that can be used to help interpret more modern forms of data that may one day be collected by onboard tracking devices such as Succorfish, Yellowbrick and eTrips – all tracking devices employed by regulatory agencies in other jurisdictions for other fisheries. But she also thinks the lobster industry is in a better position than other fisheries because it is not tracked. Even maps produced from real-time data are dated by the time they have been interpreted by consultants and reach the hands of a permitting agency, she said.

“Maps aren’t a silver bullet,” McCarron said. “Regulators get their hands on trip report or vessel monitoring maps for another fishery and they think they know exactly what is going on because it’s data, and they might think they don’t even have to talk to the fishermen. But fisheries move all the time, from year to year, depending on hurricane season and predator populations and a whole host of other things. We’re also seeing evidence of long-term changes because of warming waters and ocean acidification. With lobster, though, because we don’t have those maps, they have to talk to us. It’s the only way to do it.”

MORE POTENTIAL NEED FOR DATA

In past years, offshore projects such as wind farms or mining operations might not have come into direct conflict with Maine lobstering because it was largely a coastal fishery, occurring within the 3-mile state limit. Only one in 10 Maine lobstermen holds a federal permit to fish beyond the 3-mile limit, according to state statistics.

But now the number of Maine lobstermen buying larger boats to fish in deeper federal waters is increasing, which makes it more important than ever to include their voices in federal ocean planning, Battista said.

As fishermen move offshore, coastal fishing patterns will change, said fellow report author Samuel Belknap.

“Every fisherman knows that change is the one thing you can count on most,” said Belknap, a former lobsterman who is now an anthropology graduate student at the University of Maine in Orono. “If federal regulators want to know what’s going on, and they should want to know that, you need to talk to the people who know every fishing community. It’s a place-based fishing industry. How it works in Cushing will be different than how it works in Bristol. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of industry.”