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Coastal Outlook: Thoughts from MLCA President Patrice McCarron

After the endless snowstorms of March, it’s encouraging to be looking ahead to the warming temperatures of April. This is the time that Maine’s lobstermen are painting buoys, replacing traps, and generally doing the maintenance needed to get ready for the 2018 fishing season. Let’s hope that April lives up to her reputation and no late-season snowstorms spoil the month. In this issue of Landings, we review the wealth of information presented at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in early March. The Forum always covers a lot of ground and this year was no exception. With rumors of a decline in last year’s catch, many came to learn how the lobster fishery fared in 2017. The rumors did not disappoint — the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) reported that landings had dropped by 16% compared to 2016’s record catch, but were still well above 100 million pounds. DMR staff gave an overview of the agency’s various lobster surveys, most of which show strong numbers of sublegal lobsters both inshore and offshore. The annual settlement survey, however, once again indicated a drop in the density of the smallest lobsters, called young of the year, the fourth consecutive year of declining numbers. Michael Donihue, an economics professor at Colby College, presented his findings from a study of lobster dealers in the state. The study was funded by the Lobster Research, Education and Development (RED) fund and looked at the direct and indirect contributions of lobster dealers to the state’s economy. Based on data from 21 companies, Donihue extrapolated that the contribution totals approximately $1 billion in economic value to Maine each year. A major point of interest at this year’s Forum was the status of North American right whales. The endangered species suffered an unprecedented number of deaths last year, mainly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA is responsible for ensuring the continued existence of the whales, a fact that led to two lawsuits against the agency this winter. At issue is whether the lobster fishery “jeopardizes” the population. As DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher noted in his presentation, “Whales are the largest challenge for this industry. We must be united in how we are going to deal with right whales.” One technique to protect the whales from entanglement in lobster gear is ropeless fishing. Mark Baumgartner, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, explained that ropeless fishing, which has been used in a limited fashion in Australia, uses modems and acoustic signals to allow lobstermen to find and retrieve traps without the use of buoys and vertical lines. This idea was not well received by lobstermen. We also summarize the presentation by Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) on the Collaborative’s past activities and plans for 2018. The 2013 Act establishing the Collaborative set its tenure at five years, ending in October 2018. After review by the seven lobster zone councils and the state Lobster Advisory Council, the Marine Resources Committee successfully moved forward a bill this spring to reauthorize the Collaborative for another three years. Jacobson reflected on the group’s efforts to promote Maine soft-shell lobster to influential chefs and others in the food industry through its signature “Maine After Midnight” events in major cities. This year the culinary events will include live broadcasts featuring Maine lobstermen as well as chefs. March also included the annual Seafood Expo North America show in Boston. Once again the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in partnership with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, MLMC and Hannaford Supermarkets, took a busload of lobstermen, seafood dealers and others to the show. Despite yet another snowstorm in the offing, the participants enjoyed a global experience at the vast Expo, culminating in the MLMC’s lobster reception at the Seafood Expo Buildings. “ always informative and an opportunity to glimpse firsthand the global seafood world and the overwhelming competition,” said Mike Mesko of Vinalhaven. On a different note, Landings highlights the work being done at the University of Maine on fishermen’s resiliency in the face of environmental and economic change. Most fishing communities in Maine currently depend on lobstering for their economic welfare. Without a robust lobster fishery, many small businesses and organizations in those communities would falter and fail. Assistant research professor Joshua Stoll and colleagues have completed a study on just how flexible Maine fishermen are based on the diversity of fishing permits individuals hold. They found that because fishermen have become more specialized, in part due to regulatory limits in the fisheries, few can be called truly resilient in the face of significant changes, such as a drop in the lobster stock. We also hear from two fisheries regulators on changes to the lobster management plans for the Gulf of Maine. Megan Ware, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) staff, writes about the upcoming lobster stock assessment process, last completed in 2015. Recognizing the importance of warming water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, the assessment will focus for the first time on quantifying the environmental factors that influence the lobster fishery and on evaluating the implications of lobster habitat expansion or contraction for the population. Peter Burns, a fisheries policy analyst at NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, explores the ASMFC Lobster Board’s proposed reporting and data collection requirements for lobstermen. The recommendations are under consideration by the National Marine Fisheries Service for implementation in federal waters. The Lobster Board recommends that all lobstermen be required to report trip data to give managers a better understanding of where and to what extent lobstering is taking place and to improve biological data on the offshore trap fishery. Finally, Landings features the work of Belfast artist Susan Tobey White. White, whose husband is a lobsterman, is fascinated by the women who work in the lobster fishery. She has planned a series of paintings featuring the women, their boats, and their buoys. We are delighted to include her story and her paintings in this issue of Landings. We hope you enjoy this month’s issue and welcome your stories and feedback.

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