Avoiding Lobster Wars

Posted Aug. 07, 2009, at 6:04 p.m.

Generally, Maine lobstermen have done a good job of protecting their resource — lobster landings remain high despite predictions that they could crash at any moment — and policing themselves. But the recent shooting of one lobsterman by another on Matinicus Island in an alleged dispute over territory and the sinking of lobster boats in Owls Head highlight the need for continued discussion of how the fishery is managed, both by the state and the lobstermen themselves.

While much of that discussion will, and should be, specific to Matinicus Island, some lessons may apply to the rest of the state as well.

Last month, 68-year-old Vance Bunker was arrested and charged with shooting Christopher Young, a 41-year-old lobsterman. Both lived on and fished off Matinicus. The men apparently were involved in a dispute over whether Mr. Bunker’s son-in-law, who moved to the island several years ago, should be allowed to set lobster traps there.

This week, two lobster boats were sunk and a third partially submerged in the Owls Head harbor allegedly as part of a dispute over lobster territory there. Hundreds of trap lines have also reportedly been cut in recent weeks.

Increased costs for bait and fuel, coupled with lower lobster prices, have put a lot of pressure on the industry. Add in increased competition and the mix becomes explosive.

Owls Head Harbor Master Jeff Edwards said that when he started lobstering 15 years ago, there were half the fishermen and one-third the traps there are now.

“That’s why you have all the problems,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s just a shame.”

Taking matters into their own hands — by ruining others’ boats and gear and even shooting them — clearly isn’t the answer.

While lobster zone management councils recommend trap limits and how many people can fish in each of the state’s seven zones — recommendations that, to date, have always been approved by the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources — each community has its own informal rules about who can fish where.

Those who violate these rules can find their traps cut or their property damaged, leading to the impression that the lobster industry is like the Wild West. This undermines the conservation work — throwing back juvenile and large lobster, not taking egg-bearing females — that lobstermen do on a daily basis.

Lobstermen work close to home giving them an incentive to ensure there are lobsters to catch for years to come. Compare that with groundfishing where local Maine fleets have been replaced by large boats, mainly from Massachusetts, that can come to the Gulf of Maine, take as much cod or haddock as allowed, and then fish in a different area the next week.

While assigning each lobsterman an area to work would be impractical and impossible to enforce, formalized local management, which is already in place on two islands and under consideration on others, could minimize or even eliminate some of the conflicts.

In exchange for exclusive rights to fish off their coasts, lobstermen on both Monhegan Island and Swan’s Island have accepted much lower trap limits. Monhegan has the most stringent conservation zone. Only Monhegan residents can fish there, but they are limited to 300 traps each, much lower than the statewide limit of 800.

Despite the lower trap limits, the lobster fishery on these islands is more profitable than elsewhere, says Jim Acheson, a University of Maine anthropologist and author of “The Lobster Gangs of Maine.” Fishing fewer traps can eliminate wasted effort and cost and reduces gear overcrowding in the water, he said.

In a survey of lobstermen earlier this year, professor Acheson found that 47 percent said they would support a reduction in the number of permitted traps; 44 percent of the 649 who responded said no. When asked if there were too many traps in the water, 63 percent said there were.

A conservation zone is under consideration for Matinicus Island, where lobstering was suspended for four days after the shooting. Such a zone makes sense because it protects territory for island lobstermen, who are limited in where they can fish in exchange for tougher limits. It also formalizes unwritten rules about who has access to the fishery.

Beginning with islands, such conservation zones appear to be a good way to reduce tensions while helping the lobster industry.

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