The National Marine Fisheries Service wants all Maine lobstermen who haul traps in federal waters to share their fishing data.

Currently, only lobstermen who fish for something else, such as groundfish, must share their data with federal authorities, but the service wants to start collecting better data on the growing offshore fishery. It has announced its plan to draft a new rule that will require all those who lobster in federal waters to report exactly when, how and where they fish.

“There is a giant black hole of data when it comes to the offshore lobster fishery, which appears to be growing and changing fast,” Peter Burns, a National Marine Fisheries Service fishing policy analyst, said on Friday. “Lobster is so important, not just in Maine, but in New England, too. We need more data to better understand this lucrative fishery and protect it.”

The proposal has a long way to go before it could go into effect, requiring two rounds of public hearings and approval from the highest level of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The first round of public comments must be submitted by July 16. If the agency decides to move ahead, it would solicit public comment one more time. The process could take up to a year.

If the rule is implemented, it would affect roughly 1,000 Maine lobstermen who fish offshore in federal waters but don’t currently have to submit a report, Burns said. About 2,000 federally licensed lobstermen, mostly from Maine, already report the trips because they hold some other federal fishing license, Burns said. About 4,000 Maine lobstermen hold commercial licenses to fish in state waters.

Lobster is the only limited-access federal fishery left that doesn’t require 100 percent reporting for all fishing trips, Burns said. A limited access fishery means the total number of licenses is capped to protect the resource from exploitation. On a federal level, that means a lobsterman must essentially buy a federal permit from someone who is already licensed and willing to sell it.

Regulators eventually want every lobsterman – including those who only fish in Maine waters – to report every fishing trip.

In January, a proposal to require Maine fishermen to report their trip data to the state Department of Marine Fisheries was greeted with resistance. Fishermen didn’t want to share their secrets with rivals, and argued the state’s 10 percent reporting requirement was a large enough sample to yield good data. Maine argued it didn’t have the $500,000 needed to collect and review the records.

Under state rules, 10 percent of lobster license holders must report fishing details such as trip length, traps hauled and pounds landed. They report location, but only in a vague sense, designating which of four large statistical areas they fished. The remaining catch goes unreported until it passes through a state-licensed lobster dealers, who must report 100 percent of lobsters bought and sold.

Lobstermen who have submitted state logbooks say the work is tedious but can be done in 10 minutes at the end of the day.

That data helps Maine craft its annual fishery report, which in 2017 topped 111 million pounds of lobster valued at $434 million. In February, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission agreed to delay until 2023 implementation of 100 percent reporting among Maine’s lobstermen who only fish in state waters. That gives Maine five years to come up with an efficient and inexpensive electronic data collection system, such as smartphone app or a swipe card system.

But the commission asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to move ahead with a plan to require all federal permit holders to report all of their fishing trips as soon as possible, even if they don’t hold another limited-access federal fishing license. If the rule is approved, federally licensed lobstermen would have to report all trips, even those conducted in state waters.

In addition to managing the fishery itself, federal regulators like Burns say they need data to protect the industry from the impacts of an offshore project, such as a wind turbine farms or a deep-sea coral monument, for example. It’s impossible to keep these projects out of a fruitful lobstering spot if they don’t know where they are, regulators say.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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