Ever since this summer, lobster landings have been substantially down all along the coast of Maine. But prices have been higher, and the usually make-or-break fall lobster run is still in progress, so the net impact of any downturn will not be apparent for several months. Still, any hiccup in this last crucial sector of marine fisheries causes cold sweat to break out all along Maine’s coast and islands.

The coastal and island communities have not been as dependent on a single resource since the days of hand-lining cod on now-extinct inshore fishing grounds 150 years ago. Just a few decades ago, island and coastal fishing families went through an annual cycle, switching from fishery to fishery as the seasons progressed.

Lobsters were abundant after they crawled toward shore to shed their shells around the Fourth of July, and the “shedder” season lasted well into the fall, when they crawled off with harder shells into deeper water. Small boats would then rig over for the winter scallop season, or, beginning in the 1980s, for shrimp after swarms of this small, sweet version of its southern cousin were first found here in abundance. In the late 1980s the Japanese began buying every Maine urchin that could be harvested, during a winter fishery that went through a boom and bust in just seven years.

Come spring, it used to be time to set a trawl for halibut or go longlining or gillnetting for cod, haddock or hake on traditional inshore grounds. Other fishermen began building or repairing a weir or getting “twine” ready for stop seining herring for the bait fish market.

Now most of these inshore fisheries have declined, collapsed or are fished by a few big boats far offshore. Island fishermen now almost exclusively depend on lobsters for a livelihood, which explains the free-floating anxiety one can sense around many of Maine’s working waterfronts lately. This fall, for the first time in a decade and a half, you won’t see a raft of new pickup trucks parked at wharves.

Meanwhile, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering new, more stringent court-ordered amendments designed to rebuild the tragically depleted Gulf of Maine cod and haddock stocks.

In the name of conservation, federal permits to fish for groundfish and halibut have already been restricted or revoked for hundreds of island fishermen, dealing a series of economic blows to the sustainability of their communities and leaving them even more dependent on lobsters. In many cases, fishing grounds for cod and haddock that have been used for centuries by island fishermen just offshore in federal waters are now permanently off limits. And even if these stocks are someday rebuilt, island fishermen will have no access to them. How this happened is easy to see. Big boat owners in a few ports are way more politically savvy and way more organized than a hundred independent-minded small boat owners from a score of small and remote ports along the coast of Maine. Big boat owners go to meetings; small boat owners do not, primarily because they can’t afford to. In the admirable federal effort to rebuild Maine’s woefully depleted fisheries, vitally important issues of equity and fairness have been ignored for well over a decade.

For both ecological and socio-economic reasons, it is crucial to develop a management approach that is more finely tuned to the reality of different-sized communities along the New England coast, as well as the reality of fish stocks that have more localized distributions. Maine has successfully adopted this approach to managing its lobster resource.

For decades, a large majority of Maine lobstermen in survey after survey supported more restrictive limits on the number of traps individual fishermen could set. But year after year, trap limit regulations went down to defeat when fishermen couldn’t agree on what the trap limit number should be, since fishing conditions varied radically from area to area along the Maine coast. Then in 1997, Maine divided the coast into seven lobster management zones, while empowering local councils of elected representatives to set fishing regulations. Peace and harmony may not have yet broken out in the Zone Councils, but significant conservation restrictions have been enacted and broadly supported by local fishermen. For this reason, any downturn in the lobster fishery will certainly be less devastating to local communities than if one-size-fits-all regulations were drafted by the state or by the New England Fisheries Management Council.

Without a more finely scaled fisheries management approach for restoring groundfish, it seems quite clear that we will simply maintain the current unwieldy system that regulates fishing across tens of thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Maine. Amendment 13 may achieve effort reduction, but at the expense of sacrificing fundamental American and New England traditions of fairness and equity while continuing to limit the access of island and coastal fishermen to historic fishing grounds in federal waters, just three miles from their home harbors.

Philip W. Conkling is President of the Island Institute.