Maine lobstermen objected Tuesday to a proposal from interstate fishing managers that would require offshore lobstermen to have electronic trackers on their boats.
An arm of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering implementing the tracking requirements on federally-permitted lobster and Jonah crab fishermen in order to collect data on where and how they fish. At a public hearing on Tuesday, commission officials laid out the proposal and heard concerns from lobstermen across the northeast.
The managers hope the data will help with fish stock assessments, interactions with protected species such as right whales, enforcement and ocean planning.
Lobstermen currently don’t have to report where they fish but competition for space could become more prevalent as other uses, such as aquaculture, marine protected areas and offshore energy, emerge. Officials said this data could help regulators understand how new uses could affect the fishery, something that’s currently challenging because they don’t know where fishermen drop their traps.
“As these uses are developing in their discussions about how to divvy up that ocean space, it will be really critical to understand where the important fishing grounds are for the U.S. lobster fishery so those can be maintained,” said Caitlin Starks, a fishery management plan coordinator at the commission.
But lobstermen aren’t so sure that this would help them. Several Maine fishermen voiced concerns that they would be paying several hundred dollars for data that could then be used against them.
“It seems like any information that we ever give to the government hurts us more than helps us,” said Jacob Thompson, a lobsterman from Vinalhaven.
Many offshore fishermen also lobster inshore, where there is no requirement for tracking. But Thompson worried that those lobstermen that fish in both areas would end up having to keep their trackers even when they are fishing inshore — giving away even more data. Fishery managers said that the devices are intended to be turned on year round unless it was authorized by the fishermen’s home state to be turned off. Allowances for a device to be turned off are still being worked out but could include when a vessel is being hauled out or in for repairs or the device is not working.
There were also concerns that lobstermen would be forced to stay at the dock if trackers broke, a problem especially bad for remote ports where access to people that could fix them is limited. Officials are still fleshing out protocols for when the trackers are not working properly, but said lobstermen should be able to continue to fish under a temporary hold on the requirements.
Several fishermen thought the data would be used to pave the way for wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine or more fishing closures.
Virginia Olsen, a Stonington lobsterman and a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union, said the idea of using the data to plan for other uses in the ocean is flawed because lobstermen change where they fish over time as lobsters shift.
“Even though we are a fixed gear fishery, what we are fishing for is mobile,” she said. “So even though you’re looking for where we’re fishing, where we’re fishing now may not be where we’re going to be fishing in five, 10 years.”
The commission will continue to take public comment on the proposal through the end of the month and may consider implementation later this year.