Researchers Fear Industrialization of Lobster Fleet
Thursday, April 20, 2017 1:01 PM
Unlike most fisheries in the world, the lobster industry is actually experiencing an unprecedented boom despite centuries of sustained harvesting. Last year, the lobster catch was a record 130 million pounds, marking the fifth straight year the annual catch went over 120 million pounds, and over six times more than the long-term average for the state. The recent lobster boom, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, is likely primarily due to warmer ocean temperatures as younger lobsters are reaching sexual maturity faster in warmer waters. But it’s also because, unlike the ground fishery, the state long ago took a proactive approach to conserving the resource.
“There are some interesting differences between those two fisheries in terms of the regulations we put in place very early on in the lobster fishery,” said fisheries researcher Patrick Shepard at the Penobscot Marine Museum’s “Our Evolving Fisheries History Conference” in Belfast on April 8, “but there are also some interesting parallels to what might be happening as far as technological advances.”
Shepard noted that Maine passed its first lobster fisheries regulation in 1828, just eight years after it became a state, that banned out-of-state lobstermen from catching in Maine waters. That was followed by an 1872 prohibition on the taking of egg-bearing females and the first law implementing minimum size limits in 1874. In 1947, the state passed a law banning catching by otter trawl. Then in 1995, the state passed the Zone Management Law, which established trap limits, a trap identification system and seven geographic zones with elected councils for fishermen to co-manage the industry. And unlike the ground fishery regulations, which allow fishermen to sell permits, the 1995 law set up an apprentice program for new lobster fishers to be eligible for a license.
However, as Shepard noted, technology has changed the industry, just as in groundfishing. In the 1910s, diesel engines began replacing sail power, followed by hydraulic haulers in the 1950s and fiberglass boats to allow year-round fishing in the 1960s. Wire traps gained popularity in the 1970s, allowing people to fish with more gear. But in the past ten years, Shepard says he’s witnessed a disturbing trend of lobster boats getting bigger, more technologically advanced and much more expensive.
“These boats are between 45 and 50 feet. They’re able to pick up and move a hundred traps at a time and move them into a completely new location,” said Shepard. “Twenty years ago when we were operating 35- to 40-foot boats without trap racks you could move a little bit of gear in a day. Now you can basically move your entire gang of gear in an afternoon and still be home for supper.”
He noted that many of the boats, which can cost up to $800,000, are not only highly mobile, but also feature devices that are able to map the ocean bottom, essentially allowing fishermen to pulse-fish different areas.
“The scary part is banks are funding them,” he added. “What we saw in the groundfish fishery is that the government subsidized the building of these large vessels to go catch groundfish. And what we’re seeing now in lobster fishery is that if you’re a fisherman and you want to get a loan for a 50-foot boat with a 1,000-horsepower motor, banks are funding those operations. If I were a banker I would probably look at some resource trends and some predictions in the lobster fishery before I loaned a fisherman a million bucks to build a boat because I think that banks will end up owning these boats.”
And although the fishing is good, there could be other problems on the horizon. Last summer, bait prices tripled when fishing fleets on Georges Bank between Maine and Cape Cod weren’t coming up with the herring needed to meet the demand for lobster bait. As a result, lobstermen were forced to purchase much more expensive frozen fish bait from the West Coast and Asia.
“Some people spent over $100,000 last year on bait, he said. “In order to support that expense you need to catch the lobsters and unfortunately it’s probably putting more pressure on the lobster fishery as people are trying to account for some of those expenses.”
Meanwhile, Shepard said that the ocean climate is causing lobsters to move offshore into cooler waters and the fishermen are following them. Whether lobster could someday go the way of the ground fishery remains to be seen, but fishermen and fellow Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries researcher Ted Ames agreed that scale and technology of the new fishing boats could pose a problem down the line.
“I think it’s a little overdone and what we’ve seen happen in our lobster fishery is it’s become industrialized,” said Ames. “These are seagoing lobster factories generating between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of lobsters a day. I think it’s overkill and would like to see it reduced. A number of us fishermen feel much the same. Unfortunately, we’re mostly all old. I look at myself in the mirror and say, you know, ‘I’m sounding more and more like my grandfather every day.’”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstering Union did not return requests for comment by press time.