EDITORIAL – Planning the future of Maine’s lobster fishery

Given the fundamental importance of lobstering to the livelihoods of thousands of people, fishing communities, and the economy of the state of Maine, it makes sense that everyone involved wants to do all they can to safeguard the fishery’s future.

Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Pat Keliher is now attempting to muster that good will from the industry as he sets about creating a Maine lobster fishery management plan.

editorial-SHThe gut-wrenching effort reduction process that lobstermen in Southern New England are going through due to a resource collapse has convinced Keliher that the time to deal with the complex issue of fishing effort is now, while Maine’s resource is abundant and the fishery is strong.

During the DMR’s “State of the Lobster Fishery” session at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, Keliher explained that the lobster fishery management plan will “define a vision for the fishery and potential triggers for action.”  And, in case there were any doubts, “the law is clear,” he said, that the DMR commissioner has the authority to develop such a plan.

So what will go into this plan?

Keliher ticked off a list that included these elements:  goals and objectives; a review of the biology of the species; a detailed description of the fishery; information about the status of the stock; current management measures; an outline of research needs; an “ecosystem-based characterization” of the fishery and the resource; and recommendations to achieve the goals.

The Maine lobster plan will serve as a “living document,” he said, to guide long-term thinking about the state’s fishery.

And the DMR won’t do it alone.  Keliher emphasized his intent to engage the lobster zone councils and the DMR Lobster Advisory Council, and he initiated yet another round of meetings with industry during March and early April to talk things through.

Hundreds of lobstermen attended similar meetings last winter, driven in part by the early shed, market glut, and price crash of 2012.  Marketing was part of the agenda, and so was a controversial tiered license system intended to address latent effort.

Remarkably, the DMR managed to build enough support to push through legislation that created the new Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.  But Keliher frankly acknowledged that the agency “tried to do too much” last year.  Rather than solving a problem, the tiered licensing proposal mostly generated mistrust among lobstermen who remembered all too well what happened when “effort reduction” was tied to the
800-trap rule that forced cuts on some people while others ramped up their trap numbers, resulting in little net reduction.

This time around, as part of discussions with industry about planning for the future, Keliher is focused on the issue of latent effort – the unused or underused licenses and tags that could be put back to work at any time and cause real trouble in the event of a downturn in the fishery.

It’s a tricky subject.  Some people have good reason for scaling back their operations and want to preserve their options to step back up.  But if Keliher can effectively show fishermen the importance of first quantifying latent effort and then dealing with it fairly, there’s a good chance the industry will find a way to come to consensus on how to go about it.

In addition to his commitment not to complicate things by suggesting trap reductions or limited entry at this time, Keliher made it clear he understands that diversity within the fleet is increasingly important to Maine and that “one size fits all does not work for this state.”

That’s a good foundation for these important discussions.  /cfn/