October 6, 2008

Island Lobstermen Try Catching More With Less

By John Richardson

Monhegan Island is known for creative inhabitants with famous names such as Hopper, Kent and Wyeth.

These days, the island's lobstermen are attracting attention in their own right for creating what might be a promising future for Maine's premier fishery.

Early Wednesday, 12 islanders - 10 men and 2 women - steamed out of Monhegan's quiet harbor to set their traps and begin a new nine- month fishing season. Trap Day, as it is known, is an honored tradition here and marks a unique relationship between islanders and the ocean that surrounds them.

It is the only place in Maine where lobstering is limited to a specific season rather than being open year-round. And this year, Monhegan's lobstermen are each setting just 300 traps, half of what they used to employ.

Many lobstermen in other parts of the state set 800 traps.

Research around Monhegan suggests that fewer traps will simply result in more lobsters per trap. The lobstermen there believe they can catch enough, and maybe just as many, while dramatically cutting the costs of bait and fuel.

Plenty of mainlanders, from conservationists to fellow fishermen, hope they're right.

"A lot of people are watching," said Mattie Thomson, a 46-year- old islander and lobsterman.

It's a good time in the history of Maine's lobster fishery for some creative thinking. Thomson now pays more for a gallon of fuel - about $4 - than he earns for a pound of lobster - about $3.50.

Also, the price he gets for lobsters is similar to what it was when he started 16 years ago, but the price of bait has increased about 400 percent.

At the same time, it's getting harder to maintain the catch. Maine's overall lobster haul fell 30 percent between 2003 and 2007. And competition among Maine's 7,000 lobstermen is intense.

"The pie is only so big and it's cut up into a lot of pieces, and we have got to catch the lobster as efficiently as we can," he said.

Although a new, more efficient way of fishing could keep more lobster families afloat, conservationists see big environmental benefits, too, especially for the endangered right whale.

Maine's coastal waters fill with about 3.4 million traps each summer, and attached to the traps are thousands of miles of lines connecting them to each other and to floating buoys.

The risk of entangling right whales in those lines is considered a threat to the survival of the species.

Reducing the amount of gear and the length of time it's in the ocean could make Maine's waters a lot safer for the whales and reduce the pressure of other regulations looming over the fishermen.

"It's a great example for us of a win-win situation," said Vicky Cornish, vice president for marine wildlife conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. "I'm seeing the lobster industry start to talk about needing some changes in how they operate in order to adapt.... We would certainly like to see it tried in other areas."

Monhegan is an especially isolated, tight-knit fishing community. While lobstermen elsewhere feel the need to race to get the lobsters before someone else does, lobstermen here know that if they stick to the community's rules, everyone benefits.

So even if the Monhegan experiment is a success, it's not clear that it could be applied to the broader fishery.

Thomson said he hopes the ideas work and spread from Monhegan. Either way, he said, he's not going anywhere.

"It's a good place to be."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]

Originally published by by John Richardson staff writer.

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