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July / August 2003

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Lobster Lines


Lobster Lines
Research by anthropologist James Acheson finds lobstermen's traditional territorial boundaries provide the foundation for a modern co-management system that can serve as a model for fisheries worldwide

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A case the size of a small refrigerator in the office of anthropologist James Acheson is stuffed with navigational charts of the Maine coast. They show all the islands, coves and harbors, but the most important lines are hand drawn in black and red ink across stretches of water. The lines define unmarked lobster fishing territories that were first documented by Acheson's research.

Such territorial boundaries are indicative of the long-practiced self-management strategies that shore up Maine's age-old lobster industry. Indeed, lobster territories are as much a part of the coastal scene as ferry boats and fog. They are controlled exclusively by individuals or groups of lobstermen, and woe unto the intruder who decides to test the willingness of fishermen to defend their boundaries.

More importantly, they are an integral part of a culture of conservation that has helped the Maine lobster industry to maintain high harvests, even as other fisheries from New England to Asia experience sharp declines and government closures.

In the mid-1990s, Acheson began hearing that lobster territories were changing, even going out of existence. That's when he and graduate student Jennifer Brewer interviewed 80 lobstermen and compared the findings to those compiled in the 1970s. The result: "Those lines are still there. No question of it," Acheson says.

The concept of exclusive fishing rights has now been built into Maine law. In 1995, the state legislature established regional lobster zones – one of the first efforts in the world to allow fishermen to exercise meaningful responsibility for the rules that govern a commercial fishery. In the opinion of Acheson, a University of Maine professor who has studied the state's lobster industry for about 30 years, they were "a radical concept."

Lobster Boats
James Acheson

Photo by Nick Houtman

Territory Map
Muscongus Bay Area, Mid-Coast Maine
Map reprinted from Capturing the Commons by James Acheson

Harbor Gang Territory
A map of inshore fishing areas in Maine's mid-coast region shows several of the informal territorial boundaries used by lobstermen. In 2000, the boundaries represented the farthest point most fishermen from their respective harbors could go during the summer lobster season without courting trouble from neighboring harbor gangs defending their territories. Maine lobstermen fish year round, but the crustaceans are less active as water temperature drops. In the cold months of the year, lobster fishermen place traps in the deep water areas offshore, where no territorial boundaries are defended. Around Monhegan Island there is a conservation zone where only Monhegan fishermen are allowed to trap. The zone started as a perimeter-defended area, maintained and protected for generations. Today, Monhegan's conservation zone is enforced by state law.

"Up until 1990, it was thought that there were generally two solutions to resource management problems. One was to privatize everything, and the other was to have the government come in with top-down rules. Now there's a third option, and it's one that we helped to get rolling. It's local governance."

The new zones encompass all of the lobster fishing harbors. The zone boundaries were designed to take into account the informal territorial lines.

In 2002, Maine lobstermen brought in more than 62 million pounds of lobsters – one of the largest catches since record keeping began in 1880. According to the Lobster Institute at UMaine, the state produces about 70 percent of the annual harvest in the United States.

Through his research, Acheson knows that such success is not just a fact of nature. It has as much to do with the rules and traditions of lobster fishing communities.

Acheson has spent countless hours on the docks and at sea observing men and women as they go about their work. He lived in a fishing community for more than a year and helped fishermen check traps in foul and good weather. He has surveyed them on subjects ranging from where lobsters can be found to their attitudes toward neighboring fishing groups. He has attended countless meetings of Maine lobster zone councils and government agencies.

He described the cultural and economic aspects of those lobster fishing communities in his 1988 book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine. His latest volume, Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry, published this past spring, analyzes the political side of lobster management.

Efforts to control lobster fishing date back more than a century to a time when lobstermen, the Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries (now Department of Marine Resources) and the state legislature ran the show. Since then, the system has become more complex.

The federal government has become a major player in fisheries management. Lobstermen debate proposed rule changes in their regional council and before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Historically, Acheson says, Maine lobster fishermen have operated harbor by harbor through a close-knit social network, known locally as "harbor gangs." Lobstermen also speak of "a gang of traps" in reference to all the traps that a single fisherman may have in the water at one time.

Harbor gangs enforce local rules about who fishes where and when. In some cases, they have organized cooperatives where most members sell their catch. As needed, gang members help each other out by checking each others' traps or providing a tow.

Harbor gangs also defend their traditional territories. There is more than a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the lobsterman who cuts the lines or destroys traps of intruders. Nevertheless, Acheson emphasizes that most fishermen strictly follow the law. They operate with required licenses, return egg-bearing lobsters to the sea and observe limits on the numbers of traps they can have in the water at one time.

It wasn't always that way.

"You've had a real culture change over the course of the last 70 years," Acheson says. "People in the 1920s and '30s were overfishing and scrubbing eggs off lobsters. There was a massive trade in illegal size lobsters; taking home short lobsters wasn't just considered normal, it was an economic necessity."

Annual harvests then were a far cry from what they are today. They fluctuated between 5 million and almost 8 million pounds.

What made the difference, Acheson says, is that fishermen began to believe that conservation could work to their benefit.

"The biology of the lobster is the same. The lobster traps and social organization, the harbor gangs, are largely the same. The rules are largely the same. We've always managed by protecting the small juvenile lobsters and large breeding lobsters. And we had all those rules in the 1930s.

"At the end of the 1930s, an increasing number of guys started to obey the law, and they insisted that other people do it too. The commissioner of the Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries started to hear more and more complaints. ‘You've got to send a warden down to such and such harbor. I know a guy who's taking and selling short lobsters again. If you send a warden down here, I'll help you.' You never saw that in the teens."

Lobster landings started to rise in the 1940s and remained steady until the '90s, when the harvest more than doubled. In 1995, the regional zone councils conferred new authority on lobstermen. Acheson calls the law that created the councils "the most important piece of legislation concerning the lobster industry passed in the 20th century." He and UMaine economist Jim Wilson had a hand in its creation.

"The new state lobster zones involve guys from a whole lot of harbor gangs, people who used to fight and still do. So you get into a zone meeting, and once in a while there are people who won't speak to each other. But they're overcoming this," Acheson says.

The zone management law gives locally elected lobster councils authority over three aspects of fishing: trap limits, the number of traps on a single line and the time when fishing is allowed. This grassroots approach departs from business as usual when rules are set and enforced by government.

The councils have had their problems, but they have conducted elections, debated important local issues and recommended regulations that have been supported by the industry. They are working well, Acheson says.

"One of the critical questions we have to ask in resource management is when, where, how and under what conditions you can get user groups to pass rules to constrain themselves for communal benefit," he says. "From an individual perspective, and in the absence of rules, it is rational to get the resource before someone else comes along and takes it. It is not at all clear in the social science literature under what conditions people will pass effective rules."

Co-management, the idea behind the zone councils, has been criticized by those who feel it gives too much authority to special interest groups. "They feel it's like the fox guarding the chicken house," Acheson says. "But we've got 13 out of the world's 16 major fisheries in crisis, including all of the groundfisheries in the Gulf of Maine.

"There are very few cases where things have been done right. One of them is the Maine lobster fishery, and there's a lot that we can learn from that case."

Despite their early success, the new lobster management councils must steer through rough waters stirred by serious conflicts. Some are deep-seated, such as the different interests of full-time fishermen and part-timers. Others stem from new policies, such as the boundary lines adopted to separate zones, and the inherent difficulties in managing politics in zones.

The ability of the councils to handle conflicts will determine their future, Acheson says. Already, the councils have been used by state government to respond to overarching concerns, such as right whale conservation, and they have performed better than many observers expected.

However, addressing such issues draws councils away from their primary mission and the fishermen they represent.

"In the past, it was often one harbor against another, but the zones have really superceded that. If you're going to make the zones work, all the towns in an area have to have representatives who will work together.

"On the whole, they seem to be doing that," Acheson says.

by Nick Houtman
July-August, 2003

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