Without more specific data, regulatory agencies and their scientists say they might undercount the lobster stock, possibly triggering management actions that aren’t necessary. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

For generations, Maine lobstermen have fiercely guarded their fishing secrets, telling almost no one how and where they fish or how much they haul up in their traps.

But under a new proposal, these independent operators would have to share all the nitty-gritty details with regulators, like where they fish, how long they let their traps soak, the kind of gear they use and how deep they set it, and how much lobster they land.

Fisheries managers want to use this data to assess the health of the Gulf of Maine lobster stock and understand the economic impact of other projects, such as deep-sea coral protections or wind farms, on the valuable lobster fishery.

The proposal is triggering alarm among lobstermen who don’t like the idea of sharing their fishing secrets with anyone. They consider them hard-earned trade secrets, like a businessman might consider the manufacturing technique for a new product or a chef would regard an award-winning recipe.

They are afraid the information will fall into a rival’s hands or, in this case, be used against them by regulators to implement a lobster fishing quota or gear restrictions in right whale habitats.

“Opposition towards increased mandatory reporting stems from a fear of further federal micromanagement of what is already one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world,” said 21-year-old Troy Plummer, who fishes the Odyssey out of Boothbay Harbor. “Why does the federal government need to know my every move on the water when they already know through dealer reporting what’s been caught?”

MAINE’S GROWING IMPACT

Unlike most fishermen, the vast majority of Maine’s lobstermen don’t have to report any details of their catch. Under state rules, only 10 percent of license holders must report details like trip length, traps hauled, soak time, depth fished and pounds landed, which is shared with regulators on a monthly basis. They report location, but only in a vague sense, marking which one of four large statistical areas they fished.

The catch of the remaining 90 percent of Maine lobstermen goes unreported until it passes through one of Maine’s licensed lobster dealers, who must report 100 percent of lobsters bought and sold.

That information enables Maine to produce its annual report on the size and value of the fishery, which in 2016 topped 130 million pounds of lobster valued at $533 million.

That report addresses volume and value, but not the manner of fishing that landed the catch.

Outside of Maine, every lobsterman must share catch details with regulators. But with shifting lobster populations, Maine accounts for 83 percent of all lobsters landed in the United States, federal data shows. Without more Maine data, regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission say it’s impossible to monitor and assess the health of the nation’s lobster stock, make management decisions or understand the economic impacts of those decisions.

For example, last year the commission was considering a ban on fixed-gear fishing equipment, including lobster pots, in deep-sea coral habitats, including Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mount Desert Rock in the Gulf of Maine.

A lack of information about the value of the lobster fishery in these areas caused the commission to underestimate the economic toll of such a policy.

Eventually, Maine came up with a $4.2 million value, based largely on talking to lobstermen, and the commission scuttled the ban.

PROPOSALS AND OPTIONS

The commission wants to fill in its Maine data gap. It is floating a proposal to immediately improve Maine’s current reporting system by requiring all active lobstermen to submit catch reports with extra data points, such as more specific fishing locations, over the next two years, and eventually establish an electronic swipe-card reporting system for all lobster harvesters and dealers.

The commission could decide to allow Maine to phase in the higher level of reporting over five years, according to one option included in the proposal.

Another option included in the report would be to pursue electronic tracking of part or all of the lobster fishery, starting off with a one-year pilot program to test the devices on lobster boats to see which ones work best for this fishery. The commission would then consider the results and could either extend the pilot program or expand it to a portion or all of the fishery. Such an action would require additional consideration and approval.

The proposal would also require federal lobster permit holders to report their catch. Currently, lobster boat captains who fish in these deep waters don’t have to file vessel trip reports, even though most other federal licenses require them. Regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission find this reporting gap especially troublesome as the lobster fishery continues to move offshore into waters that remain relatively unexplored by lobster biologists who assess the health of the stock.

While inshore and near-shore waters are relatively well sampled for lobsters at various stages of development, regulators say they need more data from offshore fishing trips to know where to begin applying their relatively limited sampling resources in the expansive offshore waters.

Without it, regulatory agencies and their scientists may undercount the lobster stock, possibly triggering management actions that aren’t necessary, regulators say.

WAITING FOR FEEDBACK

The commission’s proposal will be the subject of public hearings in Scarborough on Wednesday and Ellsworth on Thursday. The commission expects to review comments, make final management plan decisions, and take action on the proposed changes to its lobster management plan in February. Maine has three representatives on the commission, including Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, who is the group’s vice chairman.

A spokesman for Keliher said he’ll wait to hear the opinions shared at this week’s public hearings before staking out a position on the proposal.

Expanding the harvester reporting program to all fishermen would cost Maine an estimated $500,000 more a year using current reporting methods, commission officials say. That is why the commission is considering whether to allow “resource-limited jurisdictions” to come in below that 100 percent reporting goal so long as the reporting sample was large enough to be considered statistically valid. Swipe-card reporting, once implemented, would be no or low cost to both states and fishermen.

The industry’s largest trade group, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, will meet Tuesday to consider if it will take a position on any of the commission’s proposals, said David Cousens, the group’s longtime president. Cousens said the commission is unlikely to require all Maine lobstermen to immediately begin reporting 100 percent of their catch, but he is certain the panel will insist on more reporting from Maine, possibly as much as half of all active lobstermen.

Cousens, who fishes out of South Thomaston, said reporting does not take as much time as some lobstermen think it will. When done right, it only tacks another 10 minutes of paperwork onto a captain’s day, based on his experience. In the past five years, Cousens said he has twice been randomly tapped to be among the 10 percent of Maine lobstermen who must submit monthly logbooks for review.

While it isn’t a lot of work for individual lobstermen, compiling all the harvester reports is a lot of work for the Department of Marine Resources, which doesn’t boast a big staff or budget, Cousens noted.

“It’s a big balancing act,” Cousens said. “I understand the need for data. Data is good. Data makes for better management decisions, when it’s used right.”

He’s not worried about giving away his secret fishing spot. Lobstermen mark their buoys with distinctive colors and patterns, so everybody knows who is fishing where.

While he doesn’t think the commission is laying groundwork for a lobster quota, Cousens said he is still worried about how the data will be used. In a year when 17 right whales have died – about 3 percent of the total population – fishermen aren’t crazy to wonder if the data might end up being used by those who want to implement lobster fishing restrictions in a critical whale habitat like the Gulf of Maine, Cousens said.

OBJECTIONS FROM LOBSTERMEN

If social media commentary holds true, Keliher and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association will find no shortage of opinions about even the possibility of more reporting from rank-and-file fishermen.

Plummer, the Boothbay Harbor lobsterman, said many lobstermen will want to know why the government needs to know the exact locations and days they choose to haul their gear and what they catch if they aren’t planning to implement the industry’s first quota at the first perceived decline in landings. Lobstermen are worried that even a slight decline in the recent boom catches might prompt regulators to tamp down on fishing instead of recognizing it as a return to normal catch numbers.

Morris Young, a Belfast lobster boat sternman, remembers when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission asked for his elver fishing data. Concerned about the explosive growth of the industry, the commission used the average of fishermen’s past catches as a starting point to implement an elver fishing quota, cutting everybody back to a percentage of their past catch, he said. Fishermen with ties to the board were told to pad their individual catch reports to inflate their eventual quotas, he said.

“My experience with ASMFC has already happened and left ruin in its wake with the elver fisheries,” Young said. “I feel they gave us a good going-over.”

Additional reporting would be an extra burden on already busy lobster boat captains, but Young said that he understands the need for a regulatory organization to boost its data collection, which he hoped would lead to better informed management decisions.

He suggested catch reports should be collected by a fishermen’s group like the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.