Trapping their way to prosperity

In Maine, the lobsterman-researcher relationship is bearing live fruit

Lobster boats begin pulling up to the docks of the Atwood Lobster Company around 11 a.m. All afternoon they trickle in, unload crate after heavy crate of wriggling crustaceans, and retire for the day.

On a good day, perhaps 5,000 lobsters pass through this lobster pound in Spruce Head, Maine. Lobster catches in New England have rarely looked so good: Over the past 30 years, lobster landings have increased steadily, hitting a record high of 73 million pounds in 1997.

Even as the numbers rise, however, scientists predict that the lobster population is headed for a crash. Last year, they declared the American lobster an overfished species.

Not surprisingly, the fishermen disagree.

"I don't think scientists know all that much about lobsters. They just think they do," says Colin Grierson, a Maine fisherman who has been trapping lobsters for 20 years. "Right now, I don't believe they have any idea what's going on."

Mike Flannigan, a lobsterman who fishes out of Kittery Point, Maine, shares the sentiment. "They know nothing about this resource," he says of the fisheries scientists. "They've been talking about a decline in the lobster fisheries since I started 45 years ago."

This distrust of scientists is not uncommon in the fisheries industry, perhaps with good cause. Much of the time, it is the scientists' data that lawmakers use to place limitations on how many people fish, how many fish a person catches, how those fish are caught, and how large they must be. It's the scientists who help determine whether a fisherman will thrive or fail, many fishermen say.

"Science has always been used by federal and state administrators as a bludgeon to try to get fishermen to agree to limited entry or trap limits," says Jim Wilson, professor of fisheries economics and policy at the University of Maine, Orono. "Fishermen have had a very antagonistic relationship with scientists as a result."

Dr. Wilson heads a movement that is helping breech some of the walls between scientists and lobstermen in Maine. Working with the state's Department of Marine Resources, he helped establish a "co-management" program in the lobster fishery.

Scientists and legislators divided Maine into seven zones, based on geographical and cultural differences such as whether the ocean floor is sandy or rocky and what kind of traps are used. Within each zone, the lobstermen themselves are now responsible for making the same decisions that once were handed down from on high - from how many traps each fisherman is allowed to put in the water to how many fishing licenses are issued (known as limited entry).

This, Wilson says, is beginning to change the fisher-scientist relationship. "When they can limit trap and entry themselves, they're now starting to ask questions about the scientific side of doing that: How far do we go? How much do we allow?"

Their industry has always been local - each person fishes the same waters year after year - and as a result Maine lobstermen have evolved methods of protecting their resource. For instance, although it is not required, most fishermen will cut a small notch in the tail of any egg-laden female they catch and throw her back into the water. Because the notch remains until she molts and because the laws require fishermen to throw back any v-notched females, this helps maintain a healthy breeding population.

While they have always been protective of their fishery, they have not always understood why the scientific data is important and how it can be used. Now, however, "fishermen are starting to see that science may be beneficial and can help them in their decision making," says Carl Wilson, the chief lobster biologist for the state of Maine and Jim Wilson's son.

Ironically, now that they have a use for the data, they are discovering that there is not always enough scientific data to help them make these decisions.

According to Pat White, the executive director of the Maine Lobsterman's Association, scientists recently finished an in-depth lobster-stock assessment, and the results are worse than any stock assessment in history. "They're worse," he says, "because we found out that what we don't know is more than what we do know."

"We don't know [the lobsters'] migratory pattern; we don't know what has caused the rise and fall in landings, so we can't better manage the resource," Mr. White says.

Part of the reason that scientists know so little about the lobster is because marine species are difficult to study. Researching bottom-dwelling species requires boats, nets, diving equipment, and large amounts of time to gather small amounts of data.

So instead, scientists began asking fishermen if they could accompany them for a day to get a better feel for how many lobsters were out there. Initially, most fishermen gave them the cold shoulder. But when they were put in charge of their own resource, the lobstermen began to realize that the data the scientists produced did not match their own.

"They understand that what they see every day isn't being accounted for in the science," Carl Wilson says. "In the past, the mentality was, 'We don't want you on the boat because you're just going to shut us down.' But in reality, fishermen want to know if they're going to have a living next year as much as managers want to make sure that there's a resource."

This has helped the scientists, too, he says. "It's made me much less of a bad guy, and those guys much more of a research base." As a result of talking with the marine fisheries scientists, fishermen have become more aware of how to conserve their resource. Moving in the direction of conservation was in their interest, says Jim Wilson. "If we can arrange situations in which they're being greedy and the result is conservation, what a great outcome."

The question many ask now is whether this conservation-based approach would work outside the lobster industry. It looks promising. So far, scientists in Maine are collaborating with fishermen in the herring and scallop industries as well.

"It is hard to do well," says Don Perkins, president of the Gulf of Maine Aquarium Development Corporation and one of the scientists collaborating in the herring fishery. "It is hard to run a fishing vessel well. Hard to run a research vessel well. Then, in addition, to figure out how to be successful collaborating together when the two cultures are very, very different.

"It's not impossible," he says. "Even with the best-intended fishermen and scientists, it takes effort and patience because the two groups talk a different language, they face different realities."

"And yet," Dr. Perkins says, "there's been a major increase in interest between them."

Maine's comanagement program is still far from perfect, according to managers and scientists involved in the transition. Many lobstermen - especially those who have been fishing these waters for decades - have never been to a zone meeting, have never taken advantage of the "one man, one vote" system, and do not believe that anything has changed.

The younger lobstermen, especially, seem to be more willing to change.

"The zone councils are receptive to what we want," says Casey Morrill, who has been fishing for seven years. Mr. Morrill has taken scientists out on his boat many times and says he has learned a lot, including the importance of v-notching and of moving the location of his traps to avoid exhausting stock in one location.

Success appears to come one fisherman at a time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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