It’s not unusual for Maine fishermen to seek a change of scenery during the long winter months. Some take the family and head to Disney World, some get parboiled on Myrtle Beach, while others take off to remote and exotic islands in the Caribbean.
For their February getaway, Vinalhaven fishermen Steve Rosen and Jason Day chose a truly remote but somewhat larger island: Tasmania, off the southeastern coast of Australia.
Rosen and Day entwined business with pleasure by attending the 7th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management, February 8-13, in Hobart, Tasmania. The conference provides a forum for scientists, managers and industry participants to meet and exchange ideas – much like conversations in the fish house, only on a grander, international scale. This year’s conference brought together individuals with a vested interest in the lobster industry from 36 different countries. Conference speakers hailed from the USA, Canada, New Zealand, India, Samoa, Norway, Ireland, Greece, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, Israel, Iran, Kenya, Namibia, Great Britain, Vietnam, Venezuela, New Guinea, and, naturally, Australia.
Of the 157 oral presentations and 54 poster exhibits, Maine and New England fisheries were surprisingly well represented. Scientists and industry researchers from the University of Maine, Department of Marine Resources, Bigelow Laboratory, Bioscience Research Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the New England Aquarium, shared their knowledge and experience of the Gulf of Maine fishery. Rosen brought to the conference an exhibit outlining the Island Institute’s Lobster Tales Program, an innovative, one-of-its kind, project designed to connect Maine’s lobstering communities to the global lobster-buying public.
In reading the conference brochure, it is clear that the biology side of the conference was a heady, scientific affair. One could learn all one wanted to know about the immune system, reproductive cycle, migration habits, and predation threats to the world’s various lobster species. Research papers on shell disease, altered salinity on nursery habitat, and various diet assessments were presented. The titles of many papers, such as – “Distribution and Migration of Middle and Late Stage Phyllosoma Larvae of the Japanese Spiny Lobster, Panulirus Japonicus, in the Circulation System Composed of the Kuroshio Current and Mesoscale Gyres” (Yoshimura, Morinaga, and Shirai) – could set your head spinning. Rosen and Day attended lectures that struck a little closer to the heart; those more keenly focused on regulation and management of the industry. During the one-week conference, and throughout their three-week stay, Rosen and Day swapped shop-talk with Hobart’s fishermen, discussing what is dear to fishermen worldwide; boats, bait, and bucks.
The Tasmanian, along with the rest of Australia’s, rock lobster industry is highly regulated and expensive to venture into. As explained by Rosen, “Tasmania is an island a little smaller than the state of Maine, with a coastline equivalent of Maine to Florida. Last year, along the entire coast of Tasmania, 228 boats participated in the lobster fishery, about the same number of boats as fishes out of Vinalhaven alone. There is a 50 unit, or trap limit, per license. A boat with a 50 trap license could be worth well over a million dollars. In order to have a commercial rock lobster license, it must have at least 15 quota units attached to it. It makes it almost impossible for a young person to start out. Licenses can be inherited or passed on, however.”
Rod Pearn, Hobart’s Senior Fisheries Management Officer, in an e-mail to Rosen, puts it into exact figures: “The market value of vessels participating in the fishery varies from $15,000 to more than $750,000. Licenses vary in price according to the number of quota units attached and the other types of licenses in the license package (aquaculture, oysters, mussels, long-lining, scalloping, etc.). As of June, 2002, the market value of a quota unit (one trap) was around $45,000, placing the asset value of the access rights at $480 million Australian.” (The current exchange rate is $1.46 Australian = $1.00 US.)
Day further explained, “The quota limit is 346 pounds per trap/per year, times a quota limit of 50 traps. A fisherman could own two boats and be able to purchase 100 quotas. Often the ones that do, will lease out 50 units, and be paid, in addition to the lease, roughly half the price each unit brings in.”
Both Rosen and Day took the opportunity to accompany Tasmanian fisherman as they went out to haul. Rosen paints the scene; “The fishery is mostly a trip fishery, 5 to 10 days long. Some may haul only a couple of hours out, but it could be as much as a one and a half day trip to the other side of the island. The lobsters, locally called ‘crays’, go for fresh bait (barracuda, caught with a hand jig, some frozen mackerel), so that the same trap can be hauled three to four times a day. The traps are 3′ round, beehive shaped, with a single opening at the top. Traps are never left out, but always brought back in at the end of each trip. In this way, few traps are ever lost, keeping gear cost low.”
Rosen also explained some interesting market aspects, “Tasmanian lobsters go for $15 to $25 per pound (US dollars). Most of the crays are exported to the Chinese live market. The deeper water crays (50 to 60 fathoms) are brown, while the shallow water crays are a bright red and more desirable for their ‘presentation’ factor.”
To the Chinese, red denotes good fortune and happiness and is considered ‘lucky’. It is a lucky color for Tasmanian fishermen as the red crays bring in a much higher market price. According to Day, most fishing boats carry an outboard for the purpose of going inshore to shallower waters.
Day added other factors affecting profits; diesel prices nearly double what Maine fishermen pay, heavy predation by octopi, and closed seasons – months when only male lobsters may be kept. Minimum and maximum size limits also apply.
Tasmanian fishing vessels presented another fascinating factor of regional uniqueness. According to Rosen, the majority of the vessels, typically 50′ in length and similar to a sardine carrier style, are constructed of Huon pine, indigenous only to Tasmania. Huon pine is Australia’s longest living species, with trees 2,000 years or more old, still found growing on Tasmania’s west coast. The pine is extremely durable and resists rot due to an essential oil ‘ethyl eugenol’. Today the felling of Huon pine is restricted and they are protected within Heritage preserves. However, boats are still being constructed today from logs that have been lying on the ground for well over two hundred years, originally cut by Irish prisoners sent to Australia. (The engine of choice for theses vessels were British-built Gardener’s, with 1200 rpm.)
All in all, Rosen and Day remarked on the pride and involvement Tasmanian fishermen had in their industry. The fishery has been managed by the government for over 100 years. License renewal each year costs an additional $15,000, which pays, almost solely, for scientific studies. Lobstermen associations make certain that each fishing zone is well represented. As a condition of their licenses, rock lobster fishers must keep a monthly record of their catch and fishing effort. Thirty to forty percent also keep voluntary logbooks recording daily catches over smaller areas. In this way, fishermen are involved in the regulation of protected areas.
Day spoke in regard to some of these findings, “At the conference I was interested in the several studies on closed areas and rebuilding lobster stocks. Scientists and fishermen studied, and were able to show, that Marine Protection Areas had no great impact in stock rebuilding. What occurred was that fishermen would create a ‘wall’ of traps around a protected area and the lobsters would simply move out to those areas. Another result was that lobster reproduction actually slowed down in protected areas; they are not sure why.”
Day and Rosen were both impressed with the kindness of the Tasmanian people, the cleanliness of their long coastline and beaches, and the respect among fishermen, be they young or old. Both appreciated the statement of the status of Australia’s lobster fishery, “fully exploited within the bounds of biological sustainability.” Both highly recommend a winter getaway “Down Under”. After all, as Rosen says, “when it’s winter here, it’s summer there…”