ELLSWORTH — Ask any lobsterman about the details of where and how he catches his bugs — what kind of bait he uses, how deep he sets his gear, how many traps on a trawl, how long those traps soak between hauls — and you’re likely to get a fisheye, if not a poke in the nose, in response.
Still, that’s the kind of information the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission wants to collect from lobstermen and Jonah crab fishermen working in the Gulf of Maine and, no surprise, the idea is unpopular.
Last Thursday, about 40 fishermen came to Ellsworth High School for a public hearing on an ASMFC proposal to increase the number of harvesters required to fill out trip-level logbooks filled with data the commission says it needs to manage the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries, primarily in the Gulf of Maine.
The Department of Marine Resources already requires 10 percent of Maine’s licensed lobster fishermen, chosen annually by lottery system, to file detailed trip-level reports of their fishing activities on a monthly basis. Lobster dealers also are required to file landings reports with DMR.
According to Megan Ware, the ASMFC fishery management plan coordinator running last week’s hearing, the commission has two main concerns about the way harvesters report data now.
First, she said, the reports don’t identify in sufficient detail exactly where fishermen are trapping the lobsters they catch, and the commission particularly wants to collect more information about lobsters landed in “nearshore” and “offshore” waters — between three and 40 miles from the coast.
Second, the 10 percent of Maine harvesters required to file reports aren’t necessarily representative of the harvesters who actually land lobsters. No one has to report two years in a row, no matter how big the harvester’s landings, and because the selection process is entirely random, it may include harvesters who fish part time or who are retired and don’t fish at all.
There is another issue with the 10 percent reporting level, Ware said. Maine harvesters account for 83 percent of lobsters landed along the East Coast, so their data is particularly important to fisheries managers.
The opposite side of that coin, though, is that even at a reduced collection level Maine’s data overwhelms the data reported by the other lobster-fishing states.
“Our 10 percent is greater than all the other areas combined at 100 percent,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.
The ASMFC is considering three options to increase data collection.
The first is to maintain a sort of status quo but with more selective 10 percent harvester reporting and 100 percent reporting phased in over time. The second would require 100 percent reporting and the third would involve universal use of an electronic “swipe card” and electronic vessel tracking devices.
All options would require somewhat more extensive information about when, where and how the harvesters are fishing.
Keliher, one of Maine’s three representatives to the ASMFC as well as DMR commissioner, was notably unenthused about adopting a 100 percent reporting requirement.
“Going to 100 percent is going to cost the state, going to cost you, a half-million dollars,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, most of the fishermen on hand were unenthusiastic about the prospect of more paperwork.
“Why not use the information from the dealers?” asked Stonington lobsterman Donald Jones.
While the dealers’ reports don’t have the detailed information the commission wants, several fishermen agreed with Keliher that a better-tuned selection process for reporting harvesters might work.
Trescott-based lobsterman Bill Anderson suggested that the selection process “target guys with federal licenses,” who are allowed to fish outside the three-mile state waters limit. “That way you get the data you need.”
Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton reminded Keliher that Maine lobster harvesters are, as a group, among the oldest fishermen in that “100 percent reporting is not feasible.”
Charles Smith of Beals Island said he, like most of the fishermen at the hearing, favored a limited but more accurate reporting system.
“I’m for 10 percent” but including more fishermen who actually harvest lobster, Smith said. “I’m definitely not for 100 percent.”
That, and a complete rejection of an ASMFC proposal to ultimately introduce electronic tracking devices similar to those used on groundfish boats into the lobster fishery, appears to be a nearly universal position.
Maine Lobstermen’s Association President David Cousens said the organization’s board had recently voted “to support the DMR proposal of 10 percent with the caveat of making it better.”
Said Keliher, “My position, really the state’s position, is the status quo. I think we’ve got a real good shot at that.”