Who Gets to Use Our Oceans?

A new proposal would track lobster boats in federal waters to collect data that protects commercial fisheries against developers
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By collecting data on the location of fishing boats, planners can understand more about the lobster fishery itself.

By collecting data on the location of fishing boats, planners can understand more about the lobster fishery itself.

Kristen Porter fishes commercially for lobster and scallops from his 42-foot Wesmac out of Cutler, Maine. For years now he has had a device on his boat—$3,100 out of his pocket to install it, plus another $60 a month for service—so regulators can track him and make sure he’s operating lawfully in scallop fisheries.

“It’s burdensome,” says Porter, who is president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “You have to log in before you leave the harbor. If you forget and remember halfway out, you have to call and try to find somebody to help, or you have to go back and start over.”

 Now, Porter and other commercial fishermen may be required to get another tracking device, this time for lobster fishing. In early August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced that it’s considering a plan to require electronic tracking devices on federally permitted vessels that operate in American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries.

 By collecting data about where the fishing boats are, the commission says, it can understand more about the shifting locations and conditions of the fisheries, determine whether fishermen in those areas are posing a risk to endangered North Atlantic right whales, and help to reduce conflicts with aquaculture and wind-farm developers.

 “It’s a double-edged sword,” Porter says. “Big Brother knows where you are. On the other hand, when some big corporation comes in and says, ‘We want to put windmills here,’ we can say ‘we fish there’ until our faces are blue, so this data will be good in that respect.”

 Having that data is necessary nowadays because marine spatial planning is kicking into overdrive. It’s the ocean-based version of land-use planning, which dates back to the early 1900s, when “planning” became a standardized profession in the United States. Planners sat around tables and made choices that led to the placement of everything from parks to commercial districts. Now, as planners make similar choices about how our oceans will be used, decisions are being made that will affect us for generations to come.

Much of the current effort to create coordinated planning for use of our oceans started in 2010, when President Obama issued an executive order that called for the development of “coastal and marine spatial plans.” The idea is to figure out where to put things like aquaculture and wind farms without harming other things such as fisheries.

The call for trackers on lobster boats would have the greatest impact  in Maine, which lands more lobster than any other state.

The call for trackers on lobster boats would have the greatest impact in Maine, which lands more lobster than any other state.

As director of fisheries policy for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Toni Kerns often finds herself in those planning meetings. Her role is to speak up for fisheries. The problem, she says, is that fishermen have been using certain areas for years, but have no data to prove it. There needs to be a better way for people like her to sit down at meetings and say, this is lobster-fishing ground, and it’s important to fishermen.”

Most of the lobster fishermen to be impacted are in Maine, and while they’ve expected the tracking plan to go into motion for some time now, Porter says, “there will be some seriously pissed-off lobstermen when this actually hits the ground.” The cost of the devices is one issue—especially since nobody has said whether the lobstermen themselves will have to pay for them. The idea that guys like Porter may have to have two separate tracking systems on their boat is another concern. And, he says, there’s the fact that the trackers are also used for enforcement purposes.

Still, he acknowledges, the lobster-boat trackers would be far from the first time that electronic data-tracking has been used in fisheries or on vessels in the United States or the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says data collection and analysis is now a key component of modern fisheries management.

“The lobster fishery is one of the last fisheries that we as a commission manage that hasn’t had a lot of data collection,” Kerns says. “We have 100 percent dealer reporting, but when you don’t have the harvester reporting, sometimes it’s difficult to understand what’s going on.”

In other words, planners know which fishermen supplied the land-based dealers with lobsters, but they don’t always know where those fishermen caught the crustaceans. Mandatory tracking of lobster fishermen on federally permitted vessels would fill in the data gaps, Kerns says.

Heading into late August, about two weeks after the commission announced its plan for the mandatory tracking, Kerns says little pushback had been received. Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says the fishermen know the tracking is coming but are awaiting more details about it. The commission’s timeline is to try and get through public-comment periods and plan revisions by the end of 2022, and to implement the tracking and data collection in 2023 or 2024.

The process will take months to years, Kerns says, but as more business and government interests seek access to ocean locations, there’s not a lot of time to waste. “Right now, the ocean is being proposed to be used for a lot of different uses,” she says. “We have wind farms and aquaculture coming forward. Without having data streams that tell us where our fisheries are, it’s difficult to help the industries retain their traditional fishing areas.” And, she adds, she fully expects to see recreational boating becoming more involved in marine spatial planning discussions. Boaters may want to start thinking about how GPS and AIS records from their multifunction devices could be used to protect the waterways they prefer, if marine associations start asking for opt-in access to that data.

“It’s something that private industry might want to consider,” she says. “It affects how they can engage in these discussions about the things that are being discussed for ocean uses.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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