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Fishermen's Data, Fishermen-Owned

Fishermen pride themselves on what they know. The ocean is their workplace, and they have unique and valuable knowledge of specific ocean areas. This knowledge is their trade secret and is what makes them successful as fishermen.

The lobster fishery is one of the last commercial fisheries to fall under a government mandate to comprehensively report all fishing activity. It is the last federal fishery in New England required to operate with a vessel tracker.

Maine lobstermen transitioned from 10% to 100% harvester reporting in January 2023 to comply with Addendum 26 to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Lobster Management Plan. Data must be reported electronically, and many lobstermen were frustrated by the need to learn smart phone apps or use computers for the first time. But tensions boiled over in December 2023 when all federal lobster boats were required to operate electronic trackers to comply with Addendum 29 to the ASMFC Lobster Management Plan. In January, five lobstermen sued over the issue in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine.

Many lobstermen simply do not trust the government and worry how the harvester reporting and vessel tracking data will be used. Will data be used to sustainably manage the lobster resource and reduce interactions with right whales or will it be misused for purposes for which it was not intended?

What fisherman wants to hand over a lifetime of fishing knowledge to the government? None. But contributing data to a data platform controlled by fishermen — that’s another story.

Enter Fisheries Knowledge Trust (the Trust), a data platform created by the Responsible Offshore Development Association (RODA), a fishing industry group comprised of fishery associations and businesses founded in 2018. “The Fisheries Knowledge Trust is the first industry-owned platform where fishermen can aggregate, secure and share the knowledge they collect about our oceans,” RODA’s website states. A critical feature of the Trust is its governance structure, which ensures any fishing industry participant who has sent data into the Trust maintains ownership and control of that data.

In stark contrast to government data collection programs, fishermen own the data in the Trust and can decide how their data will be used. The Trust’s objective is to enable researchers to access information collected by the fishing industry based on terms decided by the fishermen themselves.

“Fishermen hold extensive knowledge about marine ecosystems as well as valuable confidential business information. Separating these to inform the government raises multiple challenges,” said Fiona Hogan, research director at RODA. By ensuring that fishermen’s data remain secure the Trust makes sure that these data are used accurately to address complex resource management questions.

The Fisheries Knowledge Trust was launched in 2020 to conduct pilot projects using data from the offshore herring, mackerel, surf clam and ocean quahog fisheries. The projects showed clearly that fishermen are willing to share their data when they trust the people involved. “The key point is that throughout the process the participating fishermen never lost control of their data,” Hogan said.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) approached the Trust in 2020 to consider a pilot project to test whether data collected by electronic navigation systems during lobstermen’s normal fishing operations could be aggregated to map lobster fishing effort. With funding from Sea Grant, the Lobster Proprietary Data Project (LPD) was launched in 2022 as a collaboration between the MLA, RODA, and the University of Maine Lobster Institute, under the governance structures of the Trust.

When ASMFC piloted its tracker program for the federal lobster fleet in 2018, lobstermen questioned why they needed a new system when they were already collecting those data through their navigation systems, explained Patrice McCarron, MLA’s policy director. “These data are proprietary and extremely valuable to fishermen. They worried that government trackers collect so much data and that it could be easily misused or misinterpreted. They wanted control of the data,” she said. “The Trust gave us a path forward to see if it would be possible to aggregate data from individual lobster boats.”

Boothbay Harbor lobsterman Eben Wilson is a participant in the project. He recognized how valuable his navigational data would be in management discussions. “The data can go to lobster science and it can show how fishing has changed. I’ve had mine for over ten years so it’s a way to reach back in time,” he said. These data can show which fishing areas are most important, both now and in the past. “When you lay it out you can see how so much of the Gulf is used,” he said. “I think guys are starting to realize that this stuff can help. But it has to be fishermen owned, no one else.”

This Lobster Proprietary Data project is assessing whether data from Olex and TimeZero navigation systems can be retrieved from lobster boats and aggregated into a database. From there, lobstermen will collaborate with the project research team to develop data products such as maps.

Once lobstermen’s data are incorporated into the Trust, with lobstermen’s permission it can be analyzed as part of stock assessments, fishery management decisions, and to assess impacts of proposed ocean development such as offshore wind.

“If we are going to save our lobstering heritage, we need data to inform management decisions that impact the traditional use of the ocean for lobster fishing,” noted McCarron. “And if we want lobstermen to provide data, they have to trust that the data will not be used against them. That is exactly what we are doing.”

Lobstermen who would like to learn more about the project or contribute data to the Trust should contact Patrice McCarron at or call 207-967-4555.

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