ELLSWORTH, Maine — The state’s top fisheries official says Maine lobstermen should not be subjected to stricter requirements for reporting their catch to federal regulators.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, also said he is confident he can convince the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to drop the idea.
The interstate fisheries commission is considering a proposal that would require all Maine lobstermen to file daily summaries of how much lobster they catch, how their fishing gear was configured, and where it was set, among other details. Now, each year Maine randomly selects 10 percent of all licensed lobstermen — roughly between 700 and 800 — to report much of the same information. But in addition to 100 percent reporting, the commission also is leaning toward requiring more specific data about where lobster gear is set, which many lobstermen consider a confidential trade secret.
The data help regulators estimate how many lobster are off the East Coast, how much gear is involved in the fishery, where and how often it is used, and how lobster fishing might overlap with other marine activities or otherwise impact the marine environment. The commission feels Maine’s data is insufficient and that its policy is unfair to other states, which require all of their lobstermen to file such reports.
Maine lobstermen, who like other fishermen generally distrust government oversight, overwhelmingly dislike the idea.
At a meeting on the topic Thursday night at the local high school, Keliher asked approximately 50 fishermen to raise their hands if they supported the proposal. None of them did.
Keliher said he understands their trepidation.
For one, the change would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to implement, he said. Plus, the data that Maine already collects can be adjusted to give regulators the kind of broad information they want.
He told the group that he will recommend to the commission that Maine instead continue its current practice for catch reports.
“That’s what I’m going to argue for when I go down to D.C.,” next month, he said at the meeting.
David Cousens, president of the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the group supports Keliher’s stance on keeping the reporting requirement as is.
Maine’s catch reporting program was implemented in 2008 at the behest of the commission after other states, all of which have much smaller lobster fisheries than Maine’s, began requiring 100 percent of their harvesters to report their catch data.
At the time, Maine convinced the commission that requiring 100 percent compliance would be burdensome and costly. If Maine were to do this now, the state would have to hire at least five full-time staffers and raise an additional $500,000 in industry fees to cover the expense of processing thousands of daily reports, according to DMR.
“We [now process] about 30,000 records a year,” said Kathleen Reardon, DMR’s chief lobster scientist.
Keliher said recent statistical analyses of the catch data DMR collects indicate that it can be extrapolated to reflect accurate trends and estimates among the entire statewide fleet of 7,000 or so licensed Maine lobstermen. That, he said, should be enough to satisfy the commission.
Many also see a mounting need for documenting the impact of lobster fishing along the East Coast, especially in federal waters, where more and more of the ocean is being eyed for various uses. Both trans-Atlantic shipping and cruise ship traffic in the Northeast have expanded significantly in recent decades. More recently, interest has soared in ocean energy development projects such as offshore wind farms, liquefied natural gas terminals and possibly oil drilling. Conservation measures to protect whales, corals, declining fish populations and marine habitat also have risen.
Many fishermen acknowledge that increased scrutiny and interest in both marine activities and conservation means they will have little choice but to provide fishing data to regulators. But some argue that better information, rather than just more, can address the need for reliable data without placing undue burdens on Maine fishermen or on the state.
“If you don’t have information, you can’t make good decisions,” said Trescott lobsterman Bill Anderson.
Maine also should try to increase the amount of data it collects on lobster fishing in federal waters, roughly more than three miles out, because that is where the overlap in designated marine uses is increasing the most, he added.
Keliher agreed with Anderson’s points. He said Maine would stop collecting reports from inactive license holders who have no worthwhile data to share and from non-commercial license holders, who fish far fewer traps and less often than commercial fishermen.
The commission is accepting public comment on the proposal until 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 22. It has not set a timeline for implementing the changes.
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