Scientists predict a major population crash of Maine lobsters in the near future, due to over-harvesting, increasing demand, and a lack of successful regulatory measures reflecting such factors. The attempt to introduce various policy measures creating more limited access to the resource has been largely ineffective due to the unique ecological, economic, and social characteristics of the state. Further complicating the issue is the matter of thriving lobster populations during recent years when other marine wildlife populations are experiencing severe losses along the same region of the eastern seaboard. This paper examines the conflict between lobster fishermen, scientists, and policy makers regarding attempts to work toward a more sustainable lobster fishing industry.
The issue of Maine lobster fishing is an ideal case illustrating the challenge of the “tragedy of the commons”, since the lobsters belong to no one until caught. They have been harvested commercially in New England (the “birthplace” of the nation’s fisheries) since the 1800’s. At that time, they “were so plentiful they could be caught by hand or, with less hazard (because the average lobster was so large), with a gaff, a pole with a large hook stuck in the end” (Formisano, 13).
Since the early 19th century, the industry adopted more efficient techniques (such as the use of lobster “pots”, or traps, and boats that could carry lobsters over longer distances) to capture more lobsters faster. This led to a significant population decline by the late 1800’s, prompting the first lobster regulation (prohibiting the harvesting of egg-bearing females). Lobster populations remained relatively stable through the mid-1900’s, and for reasons not quite understood by researchers, lobster populations seem to have increased over the last 30 years. Technology has improved so lobstermen now harvest even larger numbers of lobster through the use of hydraulic lifts, and radar technology. At the same time, more lobster fishermen have entered the industry, and the overall demand for Maine lobster has increased. According to The Lobster Conservation Society website, “The lobster fishery is the most valuable fishery on the Atlantic coast of both the U.S. and Canada”. Currently, Maine provides at least 50% of the yearly U.S. lobster supply, a $107 million industry.
Recently, there have been both state and federal government attempts to avert potential disaster by introducing various regulations to sustain the fishery. However, lobster fishermen mostly disagree with the scientists, and indicate government interaction is neither welcome, nor needed. Even if lobstermen did agree, they still have an incentive to harvest as much of this common-property resource as possible before someone else does. The lack of effective policy regarding the lobster fishery could potentially lead to the commercial extinction of lobsters, having serious economic and social consequences for Maine lobster fishermen.
Point of View: Fishing Industry “Insiders”
Even with unpleasant, and dangerous working conditions, traditional lobstermen welcome their way of life. Boats and (informal) territories are often handed down from generation to generation. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council website states “…most lobster harvesters agree they would choose no other career. The call of the Maine coast is simply too strong. For the typical lobster harvester, lobstering is not about a profit margin so much as it is about the preservation of family, a tradition, independence, or even a town.”
The lobstermen have long recognized that the survival of their livelihood depends on sound resource management. For this reason, they have been instrumental in the development of (and mostly eager to comply with) state regulations requiring:
· That egg-bearing females be marked with a “V-notch” on the tail and returned;
· That lobsters meet minimum/maximum size requirements (to allow lobsters to reach mature age, and provide strong breeding stock); and,
· Dragging for lobster by “trawling” (dragging nets along the bottom) is illegal (in state waters, 3 miles from shore, where most lobsters are harvested). Lobstermen must use traps that have to be hauled in one at a time by the harvester, as they have less impact on the ocean floor environment.
“The entire industry must operate with a level of trust, and usually it works well. There is a powerful and tangible sense of community among the Maine lobster industry. They ferociously protect their own natural resource, and do not tolerate those who operate outside an unspoken code of ethics. (Maine Lobster Promotion Council website).”
Two recent developments in fishing industry have greatly impacted Maine’s lobster industry.
1. The collapse of commercially profitable fish (such as cod) has resulted in total bans, or extreme limits on the types and amount of fish caught in the U.S. and Canada. Fishermen often try to avoid a total loss on their assets, and often shift to lobster fishing. This has been an especially attractive option for fishermen since lobster populations seem to be thriving, and there is high demand for them.
2. A mysterious disease killing lobsters in Long Island Sound has meant there is now increased demand in other areas. New York is considered the third largest provider of lobsters behind Maine and Massachusetts.
The overall result has been increasing hostility and mistrust by Maine lobstermen toward outsiders and those seeking entry into the profession. Understandably, fishermen try to gain entry into the lobster industry since they are not necessarily in a position to stop fishing entirely, even if they wanted to. Lobstermen, wanting to protect their livelihood, respond in earnest. There are more frequent reports of lobster traps being cut, trawler nets being sabotaged outside of state waters, and even exchange of gunfire.
Point of View: Researchers
In a Environmental News Network Article (11/2000), University of Maine researcher Robert Steneck is quoted as stating “The abundance of juvenile lobsters in key lobster producing regions of mid-coast Maine appears to be declining, we expect landings in those regions and possibly elsewhere to decline sometime during the next two to four years. Given that lobsters are the single most valuable species in Maine’s fisheries, we think it is important to alert the lobster industry, state managers, policy makers and the general public to our findings.”
A Boston Globe article (8/2000) revealed that in June, 2000, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended further lobster conservation efforts through the adoption of further limitations on minimum lobster size (The Boston Globe, 8/2000). The article states “A fierce debate is raging between lobstermen, who are bringing in astronomical catches, and scientists and regulators, who warn that the over-reliance on juvenile lobsters – too young to have produced many offspring – threatens the long-term viability of the population.”
While harvests have been plentiful over the past several years, some scientists attribute this to water temperature rise, and a decline in predators. Researchers often come out looking like the “bad guys” by the lobster fishermen, since it is often their data used by lawmakers to craft policy. Like many marine animals, lobsters are difficult to study, and surprisingly little is understood about them. However, as other fishing industries have declined over the past decade, there has been increased emphasis on lobster research. Yet lobstermen are with the lobsters every day, performing measurements, sometimes catching the same ones over again, and witnessing fluctuating populations over the years. The two cultures are drastically different, and greatly misunderstood by one another.
Point of View: Policy Makers
Federal regulators are having a difficult time getting the states to support recommendations to further increase size limitations, entry, etc. Much of this might have to do with local culture. Maine license plates sport pictures of a lobster, and the welcoming signs tell visitors that Maine is “The Way Life Should Be”. Modest family owned lobster shacks humbly cater to summer tourists, and there are lots of coastal souvenir shops where you can buy a “Fisherman’s bracelet”, or an “Old Saltie” driftwood carving for your bookshelf. Generally, people in Maine are seen as being independent, loyal, and proud. Because various fish populations have collapsed due to ineffective (or non-existing) policy to prevent over-fishing in New England, the formally balanced lobster industry is now under threat. Aggressive policy measures must be taken before lobstering also becomes an industry of the past.
Because lobsters are mostly harvested within 3 miles of the shoreline, states have more control over policy. The current Governor of Maine, Angus King, is mostly in support of the lobster fishermen who fight for no new restrictions on size or catch limits. Especially since lobster harvests have been greater over the past couple of years than ever before. Any further restrictions on lobster size or harvesting days would probably shift consumer lobster demands toward Canada, since there are no current minimum size restrictions on lobsters there.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the lobster fishing is affected by the rise and fall of other fishing industries. In 1995, 24.4 million was provided to England by the federal government for a strategic “buyback” program intended to provide economic assistance and incentives for fishermen to leave the industry (thereby contributing to conservation efforts). A U.S. General Accounting Office study (2000) reports that 79 vessels were removed through the program (approximately 19% total groundfishing vessels). However, the program did not prohibit re-entry into commercial fishing industry (9 became lobster fishermen), or the entry of new vessels (62 new vessels became active).
Some argue the easiest way to curtail the amount of trapping is to restrict the number of traps allowed per fisherman. Full-time lobstermen claim that such caps would be unfair if someone supporting a family is held to the same standard as a retired, part-time lobsterman. Further complicating the issue is that of enforcement. Lobster catches are extremely difficult to enforce.
According to economist Frederick R. Bell (1972), “The only solution to the ’market’ failure is government intervention. Government must find some device to control entry to the resource either by auctioning fishing rights or licenses. Of course, this must be qualified to include tradeoffs between optimum resource allocation versus employment effects.” Perhaps easier said than done? No matter how the government chooses to react (as in any policy decision), there will be losers. The tough part in this case is for lawmakers to decide whether it is better to focus on short-term profits, or long-term sustainability of the Maine lobster industry. Lobstermen are part of the culture that Maine residents are proud to claim to be part of.
As the GAO findings indicated, one serious flaw of the buy-back program was the lack of forethought regarding new fishing entrants, or participants who might simply switch to a new type of fishing (lobster). The program has potential to become successful, but further incentives must be provided in the form of counselling, job training, and penalties for re-entry. This is a very expensive option that is subsidized by taxpayers across the nation, for a small number of people, and would probably find little support in the general public.
Aquaculture is another one possible option that should be seriously considered by fishermen and policymakers in Maine. Until now, it has been largely limited to fresh water fish in high demand such as catfish, tilapia, and Atlantic salmon. It is not likely to be a feasible option to raise lobster this way, due to their migratory, bottom dwelling nature (and since little is known about these habits anyway). However, encouraging fishermen who might otherwise shift to lobstering to choose this option instead (with alternative fish) would certainly relieve some of the current and expected future burden on the industry. Maine officials could also tighten permit procedures to limit, or temporarily halt, new entrants until better policy can be developed.
Researchers and policy makers might try to work more closely with lobster fishermen. A “participatory” approach to policy making will help lobstermen understand that both researchers and policy makers are working on their behalf. By working with the lobstermen, policy makers and researchers also gain a better understanding of what the direct and indirect effects their decisions will have on them. Building trust among the lobstermen is imperative for successful policy making.
Recent phenomena such as the demand for low-fat protein, and widely publicized occurrences of foot-and-mouth and mad cow diseases will likely lead to an increased demand of alternative protein sources that can be found in seafood. This will only place further pressure on the fishing industries to meet demand, thus further incentive for new entrants, and increased pressure for various government institutions to take action. Without proper forethought, the overfishing will occur, and commercial fishermen (including lobster fishermen) will continue the pattern, once again shifting to the next species.
Future policy initiatives regarding this issue should be developed from a multidisciplinary study of matters that consider (not limited to) state, national, and international politics, scientific data, economical incentives, environmental issues, and local culture. Compromises will have to be made, and no matter what, there will be losers. Hopefully, steps will be taken to prevent the lobster from becoming the loser, and with it, a culture that has become a symbol for the State of Maine.
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