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Maine's Lobster Fishery is More Than Just Lobsters

Resiliency is a term tossed around these days like confetti. You can scarcely turn around without being hit in the eyes by “resiliency,” whether it applies to Maine’s moose herds, clam beds, or blueberry crop. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change.” Figuring out the resiliency of Maine lobster stocks is relatively easy. Figuring out the resiliency of Maine’s lobstermen is a lot harder.

The strength of the lobster fishery relates to the resiliency of lobstermen. MLMC photo.

Joshua Stoll, assistant professor of marine policy at the University of Maine, has been working to do just that. Stoll and his graduate students have spent the past two years exploring just how to measure the resiliency of the state’s lobstermen in the face of a changing marine environment and regulatory structure. Funding for his research work has come from the Sea Grant American Lobster Research Initiative and the Senator George Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, among other sources.

“The lobster fishery is important to Maine. We have many biological monitoring programs that monitor lobsters throughout their life cycle. We use those data to triangulate how things are going. But the lobster fishery is not just lobster, it’s also people. And there are no monitoring programs to learn how the fishery is going from a people perspective,” Stoll said. “We could all benefit from thinking about the people.”

To do that, Stoll traveled throughout the coast to ask specific questions concerning the lobster fishery and fishermen’s lives. He wanted to know what they saw and thought: How do you evaluate if fishermen are having a good fishing season? What is one thing you notice when the lobster fishery is not doing well? After many, many interviews, Stoll and his colleagues sat down to summarize the information they had collected.

They found that answers to their questions varied along the coast. “The variability suggested that we think about these issues at a finer scale than just statewide,” Stoll explained. So they reviewed their data at three scales – state, regional, and individual fishing community.

Eight issues that related to the resilience of lobstermen stood out: profitability, coastal accessibility, business investments, community change, risk taking, financial health, personal spending, and physical and mental health.

“Then the question became, how do you measure these things? So we went to find data sets connected to these eight areas,” Stoll said. In the end the team gathered more than 70 data sets on everything from truck registrations to property transfer taxes. Long hours were spent sifting through the data.

“We ran something called a factor analysis. It’s a statistical approach to see how these databases fit together and which ones were important,” Stoll said. Using the technique allowed him to understand the importance of each area in different regions of the coast. “For example, coastal accessibility is going down more in southern Maine than eastern Maine,” he said. “The goal of our work is to complement what lobstermen know themselves, to understand what’s happening on the coast like we understand lobster populations through biological surveys.”

Throughout the project, Stoll and colleagues have held monthly meetings to report on the status of their research. The meetings were open to all. At first those who were familiar with Stoll and his work attended. Slowly more people intrigued by his research began to attend, to ask questions, correct the researchers, and comment on the project’s direction. At the close of the 18th monthly meeting, more than 100 fishermen, community members, policy makers, and researchers had attended. “It was a different model for us. We’ve been showing them the sausage-making process, demystifying the results,” he said.

Stoll is quick to agree about the complexity of calculating something as intangible as resilience among the thousands of different people in different sections of the coast who make their living from the lobster fishery. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t find some way to measure it. There are lots of data sets out there that can help us understand what’s happening. They are all pieces of the picture of resilience,” he said.


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