Maine lobstermen deal with another new rule, and it's not about right whales
Jan. 10—Maine lobstermen have gotten a six-year reprieve on new regulations designed to protect North Atlantic right whales, but there's no exemption for new reporting requirements on their catch.
Until this year, only a fraction of Maine's lobster fishers were required to report what they caught, including details on when, where and how many. The data went to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a coalition of 15 East Coast states that regulates fishing for more than two dozen species.
But as Jan. 1, all Maine lobstermen now have to report data on their harvests to the state and to the commission.
The fishermen, traditionally wary of new regulations on their industry, aren't saying much.
"All the paperwork is always a hassle, but we need to give up the data and hopefully it doesn't get used against us," said John Tripp, a lobsterman from Tenants Harbor.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, was not available Monday to discuss the new requirement. Several other members of the lobster industry declined a request for an interview about the mandate.
Maine accounted for roughly 80% of all lobster commercially harvested in the United States in 2021, landing 108.9 million pounds worth over $730 million. It was the only one of the 10 Atlantic states that harvest lobster to not require full reporting.
The regulations intended to protect the endangered whales that were expected to go into effect this year were put on hold by a provision in the federal budget that blocks the new rules until Dec. 31, 2028. Lobstermen around the state protested the proposals, saying they aren't needed because there have been no entanglements of right whales in lobster gear for at least 18 years — and no documented deaths of right whales due to encounters with lobster gear.
But the expanded reporting requirements on the catch took effect, despite some grumbling.
The reporting regulations are designed to allow the state and the commission to get a sense of where and how many lobsters are being caught off the coast of Maine and who is catching them, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The data helps provide a biological picture of the fishery for its management and planning.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the department, sent a message to lobstermen last week encouraging them to comply with the new reporting requirements. "I know it isn't popular, but it's an important piece of securing the best data possible to understand effort in Maine's lobster industry," Keliher said.
Until now, the state had been getting reports from all lobster dealers and from 10% of the fishermen, chosen at random. But Keliher said the new reports, required of all commercial lobster license and student license holders, will help regulators get a fuller picture of the health of the fishery.
"All of this is vital to understanding the real footprint of the fishery, to make sure that if and when future management measures are developed, they can be targeted appropriately," Keliher wrote. "Without that information, management measures end up being much broader than necessary, because we don't have that fine-scale information."
To help Maine fishermen adapt to the new reporting requirements, the DMR has developed a free app that will allow reports to be filed on a smartphone, Nichols said. But he admitted the transition may not be easy. "This is a change and a challenge," he said, noting that the DMR has set up a hotline for lobstermen to call if they have problems reporting the data.
Tripp said he already has been reporting catch data because he also harvests scallops, another regulated species. He's a little concerned about how well his father, who also fishes for lobster, will be able to navigate the app, but figures he will eventually catch on.
Tripp said it's not as if most lobstermen were simply hauling traps and not paying attention to how much they were catching and where.
"We've always kept our own records," he said. "They just don't always jibe with what the government wants."