When I think about fishermen and scientists, I am reminded of a great one-liner from a movie, Cool Hand Luke, where Paul Newman’s jailer drawls his famously understated line. “What we have here,” he deadpans, “is a failure to communicate.”

When the Penobscot Bay Collaborative began almost six years ago, the gap in perceptions of the condition of Maine’s lobster fishery between fishermen and scientists was as wide as the coast is long. Lobster scientists from both the state and federal fisheries agencies had officially listed the Maine lobster as “over fished,” which carried the threat of strict new rules under newly revised fishing laws. New regulations drastically limiting the number of traps individual lobstermen could set were under active discussion. But lobstermen adamantly and vociferously insisted that Maine’s most economically valuable marine resource had never been more abundant. The fishery, they insisted, after decades of conservation, was healthy. The economics of a $100 million dollar industry hung in the balance with the potential to influence the future of every single community along the coast of Maine.

The Collaborative, composed of scientists, lobstermen, and managers, decided to focus on understanding the dynamics of the lobster fishery in Penobscot Bay, which is the center of lobster abundance for the entire North Atlantic. Where did the bay’s baby lobsters hatch; where are the locations of mother or “broodstock” lobsters? How do tiny larvae interact with currents in the Gulf of Maine? How do Gulf of Maine currents and temperature patterns interact with the ecology of the bay?

You might understandably think that we would have had most of these answers, especially for a species so central to our economy. But you would be wrong. In fact, no one knew much about the basic ecology of the bay apart from the region around Sears Island, which had been intensively studied every time a major industrial use was proposed for the island.

As the great Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Derocher once said about baseball, “I’d rather be lucky than good any day.” And the Institute lucked into being in the right place at the right time. A division of NOAA called NESDIS (National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service) was looking to develop a regional demonstration project to test improved methods of data sharing to address management problems in the nation’s coastal zone. NESDIS not only manages weather satellites but also monitors sea surface temperatures, surface winds, ice conditions and the like from satellites in space. But no one, apart from the scientific community, was much aware of this information, not to mention using it for decisionmaking purposes. The fact that Maine’s senior U.S. Senator, Olympia Snowe, was interested in such a pilot project in Maine’s waters didn’t hurt either.

I believe the Institute was chosen to facilitate this complex Collaborative because we had contacts in each of the three sectors that needed to come together to share information on the ecology of lobsters in Penobscot Bay: the scientific community, the lobster community and government agencies.

The book the Institute has just published, Lobsters Great and Small, records the results of five years of the Collaborative’s working together. The five years of collaboration (lower case) is the big story. But to cut to the bottom line, a great deal of new knowledge also resulted from the scientific, industry and management groups that shared highly specific information about the marine environment in this region of the Gulf of Maine for the first time.

Our scientific colleagues showed us that to understand lobster dynamics in a place like Penobscot Bay, you have to understand a great deal about the whole eastern Gulf of Maine – all the way to Canadian waters because that’s where some lobster larvae originate. We learned how to communicate complex information better through new mapping techniques. We (the collective we) also learned how to aggregate lobstermen’s place-based information about the numbers of juveniles and egg-bearing females in specific locations in order to turn that into scientific information fisheries managers could use. From lobstermen’s information, we (again, the collective) were able to quantify the number of egg bearing (V-notched) lobsters returned to the water. As a result of the impressive number of females in the lobster population that are thus being protected, the push to impose new regulations has abated for the time being.

So how is the lobster resource faring in the eastern Gulf of Maine? Is the industry sustainable, or will we see the inevitable declines and collapses of so many other fisheries? The answer is that the lobster fishery is doing both better and worse than anyone thought. For four of the five years of the project, the number of lobster larvae settling to important nursery habitats on the bottom, mostly associated with the outer islands of Penobscot Bay, were on a downward trend – steadily lower and lower, year by year. But not from overfishing, the Collaborative scientists believed: rather, as a result of unknown changes in egg survival or delivery to those nursery grounds. Then last year, nature confounded us again as a bumper year of new baby lobsters successfully settled to protected nursery areas where their mortality is very low until they reach harvestable size. The bottom line is that modest declines in lobster landings are a distinct possibility, but not from unsustainable fishing practices. Instead, they are caused by large scale changes in the marine environment. Continuing to invest in these collaborative research activities is the best way to reach the goal of a predictive index of future lobster harvests. That dream is in sight on the horizon. So stay tuned.