Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 3, 2014
DMR commissioner to local fishermen: manage lobster industry or federal agency will
State representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), center, attends an informal meeting between DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher and local lobstermen on March 25, 2014 at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School in Maine. Kumiega has sponsored a fisheries management plan bill in the state legislature.
by Anne Berleant
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, met with local lobstermen on March 25 at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School, where he urged them to work with the DMR before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) steps in.
“I believe with a state fisheries management plan, we can make our own destinies,” Keliher told the crowd of about 60 lobstermen that drew representatives from District 4 of the Maine Lobster Union along with local fishermen.
The meeting was one of 11 regional “Conversations with the Commissioner,” designed to give lobstermen and DMR officials an opportunity to talk “outside of the regulatory arena,” Keliher said. State biologist Carl Wilson also presented scientific findings that may influence the industry.
After a quick look back at the lobster “glut issues” from 2012, Keliher acknowledged that the DMR heard “loud and clear’ that lobstermen were against any “knee-jerk reactions,” like a tiered licensing system or trap limits.
The news in 2012 “was all about money and early shed,” Wilson said. This year, the context of discussions has changed to a “downward trend in settlement numbers,” and an increase in shell disease.
For Zone C lobstermen, landings have risen since 2000 although settlement numbers predict a future leveling off. The increase in landings has not been statewide, Wilson said.
“Be happy that you are east of Penobscot Bay.”
Shell disease as “biological warfare”
“It’s biological warfare going on, on the back of lobsters,” said Wilson of the bacteria that causes shell disease in some lobsters, but not in all it is found on.
When the bacteria does turn into shell disease, it begins to eat away into the lobster’s shell and has a high mortality rate.
What causes the bacteria to turn into shell disease is unknown, but it has a “strong mortality rate,” Wilson said. However, a lobster can molt out of the shell disease, with only scars to show.
“We know what bacteria causes shell disease, but not what conditions allow it to take hold,” he explained. “We can isolate the bacteria, but we can’t infect a healthy lobster.”
The bacteria “is out in the water. It’s ubiquitous,” he continued.
Shell disease typically is seen in under 1 percent of lobsters and “predominantly in large lobsters and female lobsters,” Wilson said. But the pattern is changing, with shell disease increasing to over 1 percent in Zones E, F and G and in young lobsters. The rise in shell disease is also a trend in eastern Maine.
“It’s kind of a canary in a coal mine,” he said.
In Rhode Island, for example, when shell disease began rising over 1 percent, “their landings started to crash.”
Whether research into shell disease, testing water temperatures or using settlement surveys to predict landings, the DMR is “trying to use the best available science” to predict the industry’s future,” Commissioner Keliher said.
He proposed creating a fisheries management plan through the Lobster Advisory Council, that “links back” to each zone council. A draft would go through scoping sessions and a public hearing.
“You won’t get the young industry people to go along,” predicted one lobsterman, because they are heavily invested and require high landings to pay off loans.
“Roadblocks could be part of the conversation,” said Keliher. “How do you help someone who has overcapitalized in the industry?…That can be part of the vision.”
Lobstermen went back and forth over the pros and cons of setting trap limits and ways to address the high number of licenses held by those who don’t fish or fish a very low number of traps—the same fisheries management issues that failed to reach consensus in 2012.
“Do we want to wait until the ASMFC triggers…a landing threshold?” asked Keliher. “As an industry, I don’t think we can afford to, frankly. By the time [the ASMFC] reacts, it’s too late.”