sustainable land use

Maine lobstermen make a good living on a sustainable fishery


I went down to Maine this past weekend.   Up to Maine would have been my preferred description, but apparently Mainers see themselves as being (geographically) below the rest of the nation.   Being from a state that is normally seen as lower than all others (i.e., New Jersey), I understand their feeling perfectly.

Charles Duncan and his wife Laura, took us to visit their friends Sue and John, who live in an idyllic site on Deer Isle, Maine, just west of Acadia National Park.  Sue is a family practice doctor.  After being a teacher, and a carpenter, John became a lobsterman for several years.  He described the system guiding the lobster harvest to me, and I was struck by the stark contrast with the system now guiding the various fisheries on the Delaware Bay. 

The lobster harvest is widely considered sustainable and provides lobstermen with decent incomes (more than a teacher less than a family practice MD).  In contrast, the main species that comprise the Delaware Bay Fishery are not sustainably harvested which leaves fishermen with perennial boom-and-bust incomes.  Nearly all the important fish species on the Delaware Bay are below the long-term average population size, and for the most part, commercial and recreational fishermen are dissatisfied.  How do the two systems contrast?  Are there alternatives to the present fishery management system on the Delaware Bay that could create robust, sustainably harvested fish and profitable incomes for self-employed fishermen?


One obvious difference is the lobstermen have more control over the number of lobsters taken and the number of lobstermen.  Sure any resident can get a license, but the old hands know more about how to catch lobsters and can easily outsmart any new comers. This keeps the effective number of lobstermen limited.  I’m not sure this is possible for the Delaware Bay.  

Theoretically, the Delaware Bay fishery is guided by fishermen, after all that is the principle behind the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (both Gulf of Maine Lobsters and Delaware Bay are under the jurisdiction of the ASMFC).  But ASMFC is really guided by politically-connected men who usually work for big-fisheries interests or have some independent political weight, which is more important than expertise, training, or even good sense. Not surprisingly, most fisheries decisions are usually too-little-too-late if only because they are based on the interest of the fishing industry.  Unfortunately, this is not always the same as the interest of self-employed fishermen. The fishing industry includes big players, canners, docks companies, holding companies, and together they are not a small business. In the 2008 Report on Fishing compiled by National Marine fisheries Service, the three main New Jersey ports fell into the top 40 ports in the nation (Cape May, Atlantic City and Point Pleasant).  In 2008, Cape May docks brought in more money than all but three other ports in the nation.    

At the same time, Lobsters are among the biggest seafood industries in the country, and Gulf of Maine lobstermen seem to have greater control.  Or, is it that they have a stronger and more direct interest in conserving the resource because they see themselves in charge? The Gulf of Maine lobstermen self- impose restrictions on harvest of females with eggs and use traps that allow small lobsters to escape.

Lobster boat off the coast of Maine

In contrast, individual fishermen on the Delaware Bay have little control and must fight tooth-and-nail for most of what they get.  Even if they wanted to act, I doubt they could collectively impose incremental measures to improve fish stocks.  The “coastwide” perspective, so necessary to the fishing industry, leaves little room to manage species in discrete locations like Delaware Bay.  Is it possible to manage the Delaware Bay fishery independent of the Atlantic Coast and provide more direct involvement of people whose livelihoods depend upon proper management?

Delaware Bay oyster boat