In the Wilson clan, fish is a family value. Father, son and daughter all work on fisheries issues in Maine, both biological, economic and social. “We’re like people who grow up in Maine fishing families,” said Carl Wilson, 32, Maine’s lead lobster scientist with the Department of Marine Resources in Boothbay. “We grew up in a fisheries family. There were always fishermen sitting around the kitchen table, having conversations with my dad.”

Dad is Jim Wilson, a professor of economics at the University of Maine in Orono, who has long been well-known along Maine’s coast for his work in fisheries, especially the lobster industry. He came to Maine from Wisconsin in 1968 as a specialist in international trade, planning to stay a year and then head for the West Coast where he had spent time in his youth.

“I came to Maine and said `Holy Cow!’ and stuck around,” said Wilson. “I found fishing much more interesting than international trade. I spent a few weeks on Jonesport-Beals doing a little project for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] working on the trade effects of U.S.-Canadian lobster. I plunged in pretty heavily after that.”

At UMO ever since, he has split teaching and research and now runs a new program that offers a dual graduate degree in Marine Sciences — half policy plus a focus on either marine biology or oceanography. “It’s an attempt to begin teaching people to bridge the social and science divide,” said Wilson.

It’s a divide his scientist son has already crossed. Although dad proudly says that Carl “does science the way it should be done,” Carl has to pause to figure that one out.

“I guess it means all the science I do is really collaborative research. I look at and try to develop insights into lobster and crab, and integrate how fishing impacts those resources for positive or negative. I think we have little understanding of what fishing really does,” said Carl.

“It’s a conundrum. Lobster has been heavily fished for a hundred years, especially in the Gulf of Maine, but we still have a strong resource. Is it the Maine fishing practices? It’s as good a theory as `there are no groundfish eating them’ or changes in water temperature. It’s an exciting fishery to work with because of all the social and economic questions that weave in and out and are all related — communities, territories, everything.”

If collaborative research is how science should be done, the elder Wilson strongly believes management should be collaborative also. Toward that end, he helped set up the Maine Fishermen’s Forum 31 years ago where fishermen, managers and scientists participate in panel discussions to air their various theories and discuss management issues.

Ten years ago, he helped establish the Maine lobster zone system that divides the coast into seven zones within which license holders may vote on prescribed issues such as trap limits. The zones allow a limited entry program that involves apprenticeship. The zone system was a first step toward collaborative management that gives fishermen some control to allow for differences in fishing and geography along Maine’s sprawling coast.

Besides the new dual-major graduate degree program, Jim Wilson believes zones and the Forum were among the most interesting of the projects he worked on, along with helping set up the Portland Fish Exchange, the nation’s first display auction for fish. Between 1977 and the early 1990s, he also served on a scientific advisory committee of the New England Fishery Management Council, the federal government’s regional arm. “It was interesting and totally frustrating,” said Wilson. “It is what eventually convinced me of the need to localize management as much as possible.

“There were two different perspectives on what’s going on in the ocean and they’re both true. The difficult thing is to combine these two into something that works,” Wilson said. “In the science world, you begin with ecosystem-based management. There’s a growing understanding that things are happening on the scale from clam flats to the Gulf of Maine and a whole bunch of things in between. You need to know how they interact.”

His analogy for the complexity of the ocean and its resources is our society. “If you think about the U.S. as a society — a complex system were things happen at the level of the neighborhood and all the way up to the international scale. To make a country run at all, you have to have the ability to govern at the level of the little towns, the big cities, states, nationally and internationally.

“What we tried to do with fish was work at just one level,” Wilson said. “Newfoundland is a perfect example. The fishermen saw it happening –the fishery was changing. They blamed it on the offshore fishery. The nastiest comment about it that I ever heard was that this fishery was the premier fishery in the world for 500 years, and between 1977 and 1988 it had the best scientific management in the world and it collapsed. The problem was they didn’t apply enough science. They needed to build in more local knowledge. They didn’t need to exclude the other scale, but to do both at the same time,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of thinking that led to the lobster zones.

“The other point we and the Canadians missed: We thought you could hire a bunch of experts who could tell you the answer, solve the problem. I think it’s a reasonable way to go when you do things like build bridges — you have iron and steel and thousands of bridges that have built before — an incredible body of science and engineering experience you can draw on. It’s an appropriate thing for experts to do. Bridges are damned simple compared to the Gulf of Maine. There’s no similar experience for the Gulf of Maine or any other ocean ecosystem. No manuals. So rather than solve the problem with experts, we need to assume a democratic responsibility for it. If you give it to the experts, you don’t need to be responsible for it any more.”

Jim and Carl are both concerned with dialogue about every aspect of fisheries and they’re not afraid of plain talk or controversy, especially if it involves all parties and leads to sensible conclusions. Carl says an experiment conducted on Monhegan last year to measure the effect of trap densities on the fishery opened a big dialogue.

“Some of the results were fantastic. Just being able to have a hypothesis and test it. Some things we expected to see. I set the stage for the project but ultimately it was carried on the backs of the fishermen. It’s enabled conversations around the coast because no one had done it before.

“What they did was set traps at different densities in three spots using the same amount of bottom: 50, 150 and 500 traps. We found the lower density of traps had a higher catch rate of lobsters. In the end, the areas with 150 traps caught within 10 percent of the areas with 500 traps,” said Carl. “I think because the number of traps in the water has been unchecked over the years — individuals’ numbers are checked but not the industry as a whole — there’s been a kind of parity. As the resource increased, the number of traps increased, which essentially maintained a balance between what you expect to catch in a trap over time. The Monhegan experiment essentially broke that parity and said `let’s not saturate the area with traps.’ So we caught as many lobsters with dramatically fewer traps, but I know from a management perspective that if you caught the same number of lobsters, you’ve changed the structure of the fishery for no biological gain,” Carl said.

“If management is to be successful, you want to benefit the fishermen or the resource, hopefully both,” he continued. “Economically, fewer traps would benefit the fishermen because they have to buy fewer. But traps are used for many other things, such as covering the bottom [to protect territory].

“The Monhegan project was “really exciting because it allows the conversation to be had,” said Wilson. “I talked to several groups about it, some say `interesting, but it will never work here.’ But if you can shake up the lobster fishery, you can lead the way instead of just reacting to NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] or the DMR.”

Carl Wilson would like to see fisheries management take a science-based question, do an experiment with goals going into it.

“If you don’t meet the goals, say it didn’t work. Go back and think it through, So often we make rules and regulations before we know the impact. It’s like stumbling in a dark hallway. We’re always reacting to what’s happened.”

“Ultimately I think Maine is now following, not leading, just resting on the wise judgment of previous generations of fishermen [who created the v-notch, minimum and maximum size and other conservation measures]. Now some are stubbornly opposed to an increase in the minimum size fearing loss of markets, dealers, etc.

Federal Area 1, the offshore waters Maine lobstermen are allowed to fish, is the only federal area where the minimum carapace size for landing lobsters is the same as Maine’s; other federal lobster-fishing areas have a higher gauge.

“Maine dealers now have to sort the catch to sell lobsters in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island. It’s a lot of work and increased burden on Maine dealers. The alternative is high-volume, low price sales to Canada,” Wilson explained. “That same stubbornness limits higher-priced markets. And the current effort reduction is not biological in nature, it’s social and economic. The gauge increase affects everyone equally, and it does help lobsters.”

As if two Wilsons strategically placed in Orono and Boothbay weren’t enough, recently they covered still another section of coast. Karen Wilson, Carl’s sister, also a biologist, moved to the Portland area where she will teach at the University of Southern Maine. She and her husband, Theo Willis, another biologist, work in the same field –fresh water fish and ecology (limnology) — the saltwater/freshwater connection. And Carl’s wife, Anne Simpson, is an oceanographer. Jim said, “What’s surprising to me is the idea that the links going from the ocean to the fresh water might be just as important as the downstream links.”

Some of the Wilson attitudes were shaped by summers on Isle au Haut. For all Jim’s work interest in the fisheries, the fishermen sitting around the kitchen table, and the fact that fisheries and fishing families permeated the Wilsons’ home life around the calendar from Orono to Isle au Haut, it was not primarily Jim’s influence that brought Carl and Karen to biology. It was their mother, Sharen.

“Both my parents were pretty involved with people and nature. Both went into the Peace Corps, in one of the early groups – he in Ethiopia, she in Peru. I think that shapes people,” said Carl.

“When we got our summer place on Isle au Haut, mom was the librarian at the local elementary school. We would pack up and go to the island when school ended and wouldn’t go back until it started again. It was a great way to go back to a simpler life and much more educational. Isle au Haut was a huge part of our growing interest in nature and science.”

Jim concurs: “She would take the kids to the shore for hours and hours. She was the one who suckered the kids into biology.”

“We can really blame our mother,” said Carl. “Dad was kind of this nutty professor, but she encouraged our interest in science. He by default and she by action.”