The State of Fisheries in Maine 2004

Richard M. Crowley


Fisheries: The Issue in Context


            Fisheries are a global resource, exploited by many different nations with varying levels of effort, monitoring, controls, and success in ensuring both biologic and economic sustainability. National agreements, as well as regional and localized management, are ways in which countries attempt to protect their fisheries for current and future harvesting. Despite their economic and environmental value fisheries, particularly in industrialized nations, are often poorly managed, monitored, and fished unsustainably. Many of the world’s fish stocks have been overfished, and others appear to be heading towards similar depletions1. A study of 230 different marine fish populations found a median 83 percent reduction in breeding population size from know historic levels2. Today’s large consumer species stocks are also much lower than historical levels3. There have been surprising findings that typically, industrialized fisheries are in worse condition then non-industrialized fisheries. A 2003 study found that stock biomass is often reduced by 80 percent within the first 15 years of industrialized fishing, and the remaining biomass is typically around 10 percent of pre-industrialization levels4. Examples which are often cited when demonstrating this trend are the Cod and groundfish collapses in the northern Atlantic and the Peruvian anchovy fisheries crash of the 1970’s4,5.

            Proper management should be effective at correcting declining fish stocks however fisheries failures still occur with alarming regularity. Fisheries are a complex issue, and although scientists and policy makers understand how single stocks function they may not understand the more complex dynamics of entire fisheries and how they respond to industrialized explotation4. To further exacerbate the complexity of fisheries management, scientific monitoring of fisheries often does not take place until after the stock reductions occur4. Once management strategies are finally enacted industrialized fishing has often been underway several years, resulting in attempts to stabilize fish stocks at already depleted biomass levels4.

Legislation and Law

The majority of fisheries legislation occurs intra-state or in agreements among several nations rather then as global initiatives and internationally binding laws. This said, there have been treaties ratified into law which affects national fisheries.

The most significant international policy which has influenced how nations manage their fisheries has been the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS deals with many different facets of the marine environment. Part five in particular has important ramifications for national fisheries. It addresses the creation and limits of individual nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under article 56 states are granted “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living… [in waters extending no more than] 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured”6. Through this declaration, states assume control over any fish stocks which occur within 200 nautical miles of their shores rather than having international regulations regarding how all fish stocks should be managed. The living resources of the EEZ are managed “taking into account the best scientific evidence available to [the resource… by which the state] shall ensure through proper conservation and management measures that the maintenance of the living resources in the exclusive economic zone is not endangered by over-exploitation” as per articles 61 and 626. In article 64 UNCLOS addresses fish stocks which are not confined to one nation’s EEZ stating that the burden of managing straddling and highly migratory species falls on the “concerned parties”, and these parties must create a policy they can both agree on6. The status of migratory and straddling fish stocks was reevaluated and adjusted in 1995 through the implementation of a new agreement which built on the existing UNCLOS declarations in article 647.

The US has managed fisheries in general though various regional and federal agencies and laws. The major federal legislation which governs US fisheries is the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. This act addresses different aspects of the US fisheries including national management, monitoring, and authority regarding fish resources. It is the principle guiding legislation for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) who acts as the overseer for US fisheries8,9.

Historical Context

            Pre-industrialization fisheries had a significantly different role than they do today. Historically fisheries were viewed as a common area with open access granted to all, although there were some forms of management, particularly of costal resources, based on explicit fishing rights similar to conventional property rights which was overseen by a local regulatory board10. In utilizing the fisheries as a commons resource, rationale would dictate that individuals exploit it for every possible unit to be gained, despite the fish stock being a limited commodity – creating a situation which Garrett Hardin identified as “the tragedy of the commons”11. Many of the effects of a commons type resource were negated due in part to artisanal fishing methods and the fact that fisheries managed using traditional knowledge were usually sustainable10. The world’s population has grown rapidly over the past centuries, and historically smaller populations meant demand for marine resources was driven by local needs rather than large market forces10.

            There is a historical lack of data collection in many fisheries which continues through the present10. In the past stock sizes were not areas of major concern, so data collection for stock population estimates was rarely carried out. Although some of the failure to collect data was due to scientific limitations of the time, much of the failure lies with past ideological views of the environment and natural resources as inexhaustible, existing primarily for mankind’s exploitation12.

            Finally, as with any industry, as time advances technology improves10. Fishing vessels have become larger and more seaworthy, as well as cheaper and easier to build. Vessel propulsion moved from sails to internal combustion engines which require fewer individuals to operate and created larger profits for individuals engaged in fishing. Gear developments created lower maintenance gear which lasted longer and resulted in more efficient harvesting of fish. An especially large technological advance was the ability to move fresh seafood further and more efficiently using ice or live transportation rather then canning or salting the catch.

Recent Issues

            Today many fisheries are still managed under a limited commons type of system in which access to entry may be regulated and controls of fishing effort may be in place – especially in industrialized nations10. Commonly used controls include gear restrictions and quotas10. Many of the fisherman in this commons system display what is considered a rational response to the limits placed on them by attempting to take the maximum amount of fish they can remove from the water, even though they may be at odds with traditional and scientific knowledge13. Finally, as with any commons system, there is always the concern of individuals receiving a free ride though failure to follow the established rules13.

            Another facet of modern fisheries management which is playing an increasingly larger role is scientists and policy makers being asked to manage multi-species relationships as well as entire ecosystems, despite limited understanding of population dynamics for single species of fish10. The difficulty of this task is further compounded when one takes into account that modern fisheries are not necessarily managed within community boundaries nor within ecosystem boundaries but rather on large scale political maps5. This may create “complex and often conflicting socio-economic issues” which may present conflicting objectives with scientific goals and knowledge10. Other modern concerns of fisheries include the loss of biodiversity, loss of stock biomass, and reduced recruitment rates.

Fisheries: The Issue in Maine


            One of Maine’s largest resources is its oceans and coastline. There are many potential economic gains to be derived from this resource, ranging from the scenic views and sandy beaches generating tourism to an exploitable resource in fishing – generating local income and jobs. Currently, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) lists seventy-five commercially exploited marine species14. In 2003 the direct value of Maine’s commercial fish landings exceeded 315 million dollars, and this figure migrates towards the one billion dollar range if you take all fisheries related industry into account14,15.
            As illustrated in Table 1 and Table 2 the North American lobster (Homarus americanus, henceforth referred to as lobster) is the dominant
Maine commercial fish species due in part to collapses in the historical fisheries1,3,5,16. Fisheries are a highly variable industry because of differences in methodology used to fish, physical attributes of species, and species specific management strategies and objectives. This paper uses lobsters as one indicator of the health of Maine’s fisheries and the primary focus of discussion and analysis. The broader implications and lessons which follow are readily applicable to many additional fisheries.

Text Box: Table 2: Top 5 Fisheries Species by Landed Pound, 200317.
Rank	Species	Species Landed (Pounds)	% of Total Poundage
1	Atlantic Herring	96,441,641	41
2	North American Lobster	54,976,864	23
3	Sea Cucumbers	20,065,870	8
4	Atlantic Salmon	13,243,418	6
5	Green Sea Urchin	5,962,668	3

Table 2: Top 5 Species by Total Fishery Value, 200317.
Rank	Species	Total Value ($)	% of Total Value
1	North American Lobster	205,754,390 	65 
2	Atlantic Salmon	28,208,480 	9 
3	Soft-Shell Clam	15,859,229 	5 
4	Green Sea Urchin	8,569,109 	3 
5	Angler (monkfish)	7,852,098 	2

            There are two major families of lobster worldwide. Clawed lobsters, such as Homarus americanus, are in the family Nephropidae, which is composed of around 30 species. The other family of lobsters is Palinuridae which is comprised of clawless lobsters and contains around 45 different species. Palinuridae tend to be a warmer water species then Nephropidae. Clawed lobsters are preferred by consumers over clawless lobsters because the meat in the claws is softer, and because there is more body edible mass on same sized individuals of the different families. Clawless lobsters are traditionally sold as lobster tails, shredded lobster, and are used at some restaurants such as Red Lobster. It is generally accepted that Homarus americanus can live past one hundred years. Maximum recorded body weights have been in the high thirty pound range, although the most common weight of commercial lobsters is in the pound and a half to two pound range (three and a half to four inch carapace length)18. The Maine lobster is a relatively sedentary species, and can produce around 7,000 eggs for each pound of its body weight5.

Legislation and Law

            Although Maine is subject to all federal laws and any international treaties which the US is signatory to, the bulk of its fisheries management occurs at the state level. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is responsible for scientific researching, monitoring, enforcement, and management of the marine resources inside of Maine’s territorial waters (3 miles from shoreline)19. Due to their sedentary nature and preference for shallow waters, much of Maine’s annual lobster landings fall within state regulation. These regulations are defined in the Maine state statues title 12, Chapter 619 which covers lobster and crab fishing. Specific regulations include apprentice programs (§6422), measurement limits (§6431), vessel and trap limits (§6431), gear restrictions (§6432, 6433), and reproducing stock regulations (§6436)20. Some of these regulations, such as a maximum legal size are unique to Maine’s lobster fishery when compared with the rest of the north Atlantic lobster fishery; other regulations, such as disallowing the removal of egg-bearing females, were historically unique to Maine but have now been adopted by other states in an effort to aid their overexploited lobster stocks.

Historical Context

            Historically, lobsters were so plentiful in Maine that they were used as fertilizer by native Americans and prison food during the colonial period16,21. They were considered a food for the lower classes, and only the starving would willingly consume them22. In the state of Maine it was considered cruel and unusual punishment to feed your servants more then 3 meals of lobster a week, and this was taken so seriously that there was an uprising on Mount Desert Island over lobster meals22. Traditional lobstering was done by hand along the shoreline and tidal zone until 1850 when traps came into use21. Live lobsters were transported using a boat type called “smacks” along the northeastern seaboard until the late 1800’s when lobster pounds became commonplace21. World war II saw a rapid increase in lobster consumption as people searched for a non-rationed food to fulfill their protein requirements21.

            One of the strengths of Maine’s lobster fishery is that many of the current regulations were first used informally among lobstermen before they became legally binding15. This resulted in a ‘bottom-up’ management approach rather then the modern ‘top-down’ management approach which often encounters problems due to its apparent creation of an adversarial stance between fisherman and policy makers10,13,15. Maine lobstermen began implementing informal conservation measures as early as the 1930’s15. Through this early action, the fisheries experienced steady catches up through the 1980’s and saw historically high recruitment rates into the 1990’s15. Lobster fisheries were (and still are) informally linked to certain communities along with an unwritten understanding that lobster fisherman will only fish in their area21. This can result in community-specific regulations which are generally not taken into account by history.

            Technological changes also impacted the Maine lobster fishery. Two of the most significant advances were the move from sail powered friendship sloops to modern lobster boats, which drastically reduced the amount of time and effort to get from one trap string to the other, and the move to heavy gauge wire traps from wooden ones allowing fisherman to work significantly more traps due to reduced maintenance demands.

Recent Issues

            Currently, the Maine lobster fishery is experiencing unprecedented catch rates (Figure 2) which have been rising since the beginning of the 1990’s. Three years ago concern was voiced regarding a population crash, which has not occurred16. Industry value is steadily increasing and recruitment rates have remained in the region where they assure a healthy stock several years down the road16. In 2003 more people were engaged in lobstering than at almost any time in Maine’s history.

            Despite the current prosperity of the lobster industry, there is already concern over what factors may be driving the surge in landings, and what effect this could be having on the ecosystem. Many reports demonstrate that the success of the lobster and similar fisheries to failures of higher trophic level fisheries1-5,10,16. There is a growing concern that the trends of the lobster industry indicate an ecosystem which is out of natural balance, and could potentially be proceeding down the same path as the cod and groundfish industries before it3,16. As oceans warm, diseases and predators may advance further northward to impact lobster stocks16.

Indicators, Policy and Analysis


The following indicators attempt to examine the health of Maine’s fisheries using lobster as the primary species of analysis. This analysis compares current lobster trends to the historical trends of other Maine fisheries in order to highlight and draw upon similarities which may provide an idea of what the future may hold for the lobster fishery. Additionally, this analysis suggests several areas where additional research and data collection are needed to better monitor and understand the implications of these trends. An indicator that shows the approach of a potential problem allows action to be taken proactively, minimizing the friction between fishers and non-fishers2.

Indicator 1: Historical Trends in Maine Fisheries


            In Maine the major historical fish species are all exhibiting declines from their landing peaks, many times by scales of 75 percent or greater (Figure 1). All of the species displayed in Figure 1 (excluding lobster) are found at higher trophic levels of the food chain, and decreases in these upper level species biomass results in fishing efforts being intensified on lower trophic level populations25. Additionally, these declines lower competition for mid trophic level species resulting in population increases through a process of compensatory increases of the species’ numbers1,3-5,16. It is possible that this mechanism could be one of the driving forces of the rapid lobster landing increases.

            Once a species has crashed it rarely undergoes a rapid recovery. Most crashed fisheries exhibit little to no change in species abundance even fifteen years after the actual decline, as seen in Figure 12. The decline and resulting low landings are due to reduced reproducing populations and subsequently lower recruitment rates of juveniles. Individual species fecundity may also play a role in the lack of recovery as well as individual species fecundity to growth dynamics2,26,27. Lobster recruitment rates are at a historical high, which has been attributed to the extended period of predatory fish absence.

            The trends indicated by Figure 1 serve as a caution to Maine. Despite the relatively high recruitment and general health of the lobster fishery, all of the major Maine fishing industries which came before lobster experienced stock declines. These fisheries were all subject to the same phenomenon of compensatory growth through predator depletion as the lobster fishery is experiencing now but failed to achieve sustainable catches.

Policy Recommendations

            Fish population dynamics is a complex topic in which errors can and will occur.  Most major fisheries have some type of data regarding expected stock size in relation to how many fish are being removed from the environment each year. This does not hold true to Maine’s lobster population – only the total pounds landed are recorded with no recording of how many individuals are landed24. Maine should mandate that the total number of lobsters landed be recorded on landing forms in addition to the total poundage of lobster. If Maine were to record these data then through the use of scientific models such as SIMLOB and other related programs the potential stock size could be established. It will become apparent how much of the stock each yearly landing is removing, resulting in transparency of how much remaining stock needs to be protected and providing potential catch limits with concrete data justifying them. Additionally, by having total stock population size fluctuations over several years Maine can begin to study how larval recruitment affects the lobster stock into the future, furthering the ability to predict crashes before they happen and take preventative action.

Indicator 2: Historical Trends in Northeast Lobster Fisheries


            Since the mid to late 1990’s there has been a noticeable decrease in the total pounds of lobsters caught in four out of the seven north Atlantic lobster fisheries (Figure 2). In most situations, the decrease was a rapid occurrence, taking less then five years for landings to drop to less than half of their peak value. Maine is the only state to experience steady growth over the same time period, with a threefold increase in pounds landed. The concern is at what point will Maine’s lobster fishery peak, and once this occurs will Maine experience level to slowly declining landings as Massachusetts did or face a rapid collapse as the other northeastern fisheries did.

            A factor often credited for collapses is disease16. While disease may have played an assisting role in fisheries collapse they could not have accounted for the entire decline in catch. All of the fisheries dealt with the same species of lobster. This leads one to expect that such a devastating disease would have spread quickly with minimal regard for political boundaries – similar to how the long-spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) die off in the Caribbean occurred. Figure 3 depicts otherwise. The crashes do not occur in a steady northward moving pattern, and stop abruptly at the Massachusetts border before resuming in New Hampshire. Massachusetts’ stock appears completely unaffected by any disease, as does Maine. Recent reports have noted that declines in lobster stock were already underway before diseases commonly implicated in the crashes became prevalent28. The emerging view of the disease theory is that while present, they played only a supporting role in stock declines28.

A second possible explanation for the trends is a lack of understanding of lobster population dynamics complicating management. It is possible in fisheries with high depletion rates that localized extinction can occur despite close monitoring – particularly for species which have late ages of maturity such as lobster4. This coupled with the fact that size selective fisheries such as lobster lose 80 percent of their of their adult population each year may have resulted in a loss of a viable reproducing stock2,28. Maine has seen extremely high recruitment, explaining its continued growth15,16. Maine’s implementation of a maximum legal commercial size on lobsters is unique to the lobster fishery and could be implicated as the reason for these high recruitment rates through protection of high fecundity species.

The historical trends of northeastern lobster fisheries indicate that despite its apparent success, Maine may be following the same path as the other north Atlantic lobster fisheries. Utilizing a precautionary principal, without indisputable scientific evidence of a factor differentiating Maine’s lobster population dynamics from the others, management should be taken proactively to avoid any potential causes implicated in other lobster stock crashes.

Policy Recommendations

            Maine currently has the strictest regulations of all the north Atlantic lobster fisheries (discussed in “recent issues”) which is the first step in protecting stock sizes. Prior to additional policies being implemented, Maine needs to ascertain several important statistics about its lobster population.

            All of the protection on legal sized lobster is geared towards conserving the females. Through these protections, one would expect that the oversized lobster population will be skewed heavily towards females. The issue which arises is that lobster mating is size dependent, and although neither male nor female are monogamous there may be a shortage of mating males15,22. The first step which should be undertaken is to determine the actual ratio of oversized male lobsters to females. Maine does not require lobstermen to report the number of caught oversized lobster. Lobstermen should be regulated to collect this data, as well as to record the sex of the lobsters – which will allow the computation of population ratios.

            Lobstermen should also be encouraged to record the number of female lobsters that they V-notch throughout the season. This figure used in conjunction with the total number of lobsters captured will provide an idea of how much of the annual stock is composed of reproducing females. As these females progress to oversized lobsters the population ratio will become more accurate.

            Research should be funded to determine how many females a male lobster will mate with given natural conditions in a two year period to determine the optimum amount of male lobsters to female lobsters. Comparing this result to the ratio established though V-notching and oversized recording will allow policy makers to quickly see if more male lobsters need to be protected. Once these ratios are established, if male populations are too low corrections can be made by setting a quota of male lobsters need to be V-notched. These regulations would not place any cost burden on the lobster fisherman and will potentially increase their annual catch in the long run.


Indicator 3: Individuals in the industry versus licenses issued

            Despite the moderately stable number of licenses issued, the total landed pounds has been increasing steadily, and despite a static license total the potential effort in the industry has been steadily increasing. This phenomenon was documented in the Canadian lobster fishery as well5. The correlation between individuals in the fishery and the pounds landed is strong over the period data is available for. Increasing the number of fisherman by 63 percent increased the pounds caught by 52 percent, or increasing the fisherman by a multiple of 1.6 increased the pounds of fish caught by a multiple of 1.9. The increase of effort is a result of a new licensing scheme which was enacted in 1990. Maine implemented a system which uses three different types of licenses, each of which limits the number of assistants (sternmen) that a vessel can have. Class I allows only the fisherman to work on the boat, class II allows one assistant, and class III allows two assistants. Figure 5 provides a more accurate assessment of the effort in the Maine fishery than does the total number of licenses issued. There is a clear shift from a license I industry, which is a low intensity fishery, to a license type II and III fishery which is a more intense effort fishery. The analysis of the license type instead of total licenses dispels the false impression that catches are increasing despite steady effort.



Policy Recommendations

            Due to Maine’s uses of three different license types, a solution would be to limit the number of each type of license issued rather than cap the total number of licenses issued, which is done independent of the license type. This would not totally bar individuals from entering the industry, but would limit how many boats in the fleet have more than one person working the traps – lowering the effort. The potential cost that would arise is this approach could make working conditions more dangerous for fisherman though the loss of assistants.

            Through limiting license types, Maine would also indirectly limit the number of traps worked by each boat, resulting in a cut-back of the total traps in the water. A boat working a single crew man will have a harder time tending to 800 traps then a boat working three crewmen, and as a result lobstermen would run shorter sets. While this could mean less lobsters removed from the water, the price would go up to reflect increased effort expenditure and product scarcity.


            Maine’s lobster fishery is in good health.  Additionally, barring any unforeseen factors Maine’s lobster fishery appears to be assured success for the near future.  The concern for Maine should be less of a question of “is the fishery healthy” and more a question of “what makes Maine’s lobster fishery exempt form the collapses that the other northeast states experienced.”  This is a much more complex question, and what the policy recommendations for indicators attempted to address.

Before Maine begins to implement any new policy, there is a clear need for more data collection and research. Once these data have been collected, then the recommendations which have been given in this paper can be better evaluated. Additionally, the collection of this data will allow evaluation of other areas. Maine should make a concentrated effort to establish a trend on the average weight of the lobsters caught in the traps. This is essential to establish the dominate age class of lobsters in the population. The results will also provide baseline data on any possible genetic shift in the growth rates of the lobster via the time from larval settlement to minimum cacheable size. Studies have documented the heritability of growth rates in fish, and if there is a longer larval to minimum legal size time interval then there is increased potential for predators and diseases to impact the population2.

Literature Cited


1.         Hilborn, R. et al. State of the World Fisheries. Annual Review of Environmental Resources 28, 359-399 (2003).

2.         Hutchings, J. A. & Reynolds, J. D. Marine Fish Population Collapses: Consequences for Recovery and Extinction Risk. Biological Science 54, 297-309 (2004).

3.         Jackson, J. B. C. et al. Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Costal Ecosystems. Science 293, 692-639 (2001).

4.         Myers, R. A. & Worm, B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423, 280-283 (2003).

5.         Charles, A. T. Fisheries management in Atlantic Canada. Ocean and Coastal Management 35, 101-119 (1997).

6.         United Nations. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (1982).

7.         United Nations. Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. 1-40 (1995).

8.         Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. (1996).

9.         National Marine Fisheries Service. NOAA Fisheries Feature: Legislation. accessed 11/15/04 (2004).

10.        Caddy, J. F. & Cochrane, K. L. A review of fisheries management past and present and some future perspectives for the third millennium. Ocean and Coastal Management 44, 653-682 (2001).

11.        Hardin, G. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162, 1243-1248 (1968).

12.        Anderson, N. & Herst, B. personal communication. (2004).

13.        Gavaris, S. Population stewardship rights: decentralized management through explicit accounting of the value of uncaught fish. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 53, 1683-1692 (1996).

14.        Maine Department of Marine Resources. Preliminary 2003 Maine Landings by Species. accessed 11/22/04 (2003).

15.        MacDonald, B. personal communication. (2004).

16.        Powell, M. Tracking Maine's Crustacean Bounty. Washington Post (2003).

17.        National Marine Fisheries Service. Landings Database. (2004).

18.        Gulf of Maine Aquarium. A Lobsters Life. accessed 11/16/04 (1998).

19.        Maine Department of Marine Resources. Maine Department of Marine Resource Strategic Plan. accessed 11/16/04 (2001).

20.        Maine Department of Marine Resources. Lobster and Crab Fishing Licenses. (2003).

21.        Gulf of Maine Aquarium. Lobstering History. accessed 11/16/04 (2000).

22.        Mills, D. personal communication. (2004).

23.        Maine Department of Marine Resources. Maine Department of Marine Resources. accessed 11/16/04 (2003).

24.        Holt, H. personal communication. (2004).

25.        Pauly, D., Christensen, V. & Dalsgaard, J. Fishing down marine food webs. Oceanographic Literature Review (1998).

26.        Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife Marine Fisheries. Management Plan for the Crustacean Fishery Sector. 1-13 (2003).

27.        Maine Department of Marine Resources. Maine Department of Resources research priorities for lobsters. (2004).

28.        Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife. Rhode Island Fisheries Stock Status: an overview. (2004).



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