Monhegan Island lobstermen are nearing the end of their first season under new rules. They are fishing a longer season with fewer traps per person, and so far, they’re having surprising success catching as many or more lobsters.

“We are now fishing 300 traps apiece,” said Doug Boynton, who has been fishing off Monhegan for 38  years. “And the fishing is as good as when we were fishing 600 traps. That, to me, is miraculous.”

The island with its tiny year-round population made up mostly of lobstering families has always operated under different rules — fishing in winter, and limited to a defined season where most Maine lobstermen’s seasons are curtailed only by weather.

In 1998, Monhegan harvesters sought a special fishing zone around the island before the current system was put in place that mandated specific zones coast wide. “We had the lowest trap limit in the state at 600,” said Boynton. “We cut it in half this year, so we cut our bait consumption way down. When the lobsters aren’t crawling we save a lot of bait and fuel.”

The changes in Monhegan’s trap limit and season were prompted, said Boynton, by an experiment the harvesters tried during their closed season in cooperation with the Maine Department of Resources (DMR).

In 2005, Maine DMR’s chief lobster biologist, Carl Wilson, helped Monhegan lobstermen get an exemption during their off-season in September and October to fish a limited number of traps in designated areas around the island. They selected eight trapping areas and set traps in varying densities: low (50), medium (167), and high (500).

The length of time traps were left in the water before being hauled (“soak time”) was held constant to four days in all areas from Sept. 1 through Oct. 18. At the end of the experiment, the average cumulative catch of legal-sized lobsters per number of hauls proved to be highest in the medium-density areas.

Wilson points out that the Monhegan experiment does not indicate any sweeping changes for the rest of the state’s fishery. He even says the changes Monhegan chose to make to their season did not result directly from the experiment. Harvesters on the island were looking for ways to reduce costs and improve catches and the experiment helped them decide to try a lower trap limit.

The results of the experiment can’t be readily applied anywhere else, said Wilson, because the traps were set during a closed season in waters usually not fished during that time of year; that only seven harvesters participated and the Monhegan zone has had a lower trap limit all along.
Monhegan fishermen decided to take the plunge  and ask the Legislature for a longer season if they agreed to lower their trap limit. They negotiated the trap limit with the DMR and finally settled on 300 and extended their season from six months to eight months by starting to fish Oct. 1, instead of Dec. 1.

For around a century, Monhegan’s celebrated Trap Day was Jan. 1, but harvesters sought a season extension a decade ago, and an increase in the size of their Monhegan Lobster Conservation Zone  around the island from one mile to two miles.

“We wanted more than 300 traps, but we had to do something agreeable to the DMR,” said Boynton. “Based on the science, they were confident it was going to work out for us (with 300 traps) but were afraid. We felt like guinea pigs.”

“We went into this thinking it could be a disaster,” Boynton added. “Now even the skeptics are mostly not skeptical. Overall, it’s a huge success.”
In mid-April, Boynton said Monhegan harvesters found they had been landing a consistent catch with a higher per-trap catch rate than in previous seasons.

“Usually we would get a huge catch at the start of the season and by now we’d be fished out, but that didn’t happen,” Boynton said.
At 31, Matt Weber is one of the younger Monhegan lobstermen, but he’s been fishing on Monhegan for 13 years, the last four in his 36-foot boat, Seldom Seen. Weber took part in the off-season experiment, and another, smaller “soak time” experiment last year with three fishermen involving 120 traps each.

“One of the reasons was to find out more about what’s going on out here,” said Weber. “I think more information will help us make our fishery better. Things were not going well and we needed to change how we did business.”

“The new season is going well, against all my predictions,” said Weber. “I’ve got to hand it to Carl [Wilson]. He said ‘stick it out and you’ll see.’ “
“I’m like every 31-year-old lobsterman on the coast of Maine. I want to go lobstering all day, every day, but I don’t want to waste my time. If you’re not catching anything, you’re wasting bait and fuel,” Weber said. “When I heard 300 traps, I was pretty dejected, but I’m busier lobstering with 300 traps than I ever was with 600.”

Especially in the fall, Weber added. “We never fished in the fall before. While the rest of Maine didn’t have a good year last year, I had my best year ever. On Monhegan we’re so used to doing with so little, catching relatively few lobsters, that any increase looks like a lot. And we’re using half the fuel and half the bait to catch the same or more lobsters.”

The higher catch per trap with fewer traps in the water reflects the way lobster fishing was once conducted in Maine and bears out what scientists and some lobstermen have been saying for years — more traps don’t necessarily catch more lobsters.

Maine lobstermen saw their years of record catches come to an abrupt end last year, when the overall catch dropped to 56 million pounds — by no means a historic low, but a big dive below previous years when landings peaked, as in 2003 which recorded an adjusted total of 90 million pounds.

Landings are hard to pin down because DMR began collecting voluntary data from some lobster dealers in 2002 and 2003, so the jump may mean more landings were reported. In 2004, lobster reporting became mandatory for all Maine dealers buying directly from harvesters, so comparisons to the years before advanced reporting may not be accurate.

But if 2003 landings can be considered roughly correct, the 2007 landings with the same reporting parameters represent a 40 percent decline over that total. Historically, landings had averaged around 20 million pounds since 1947.  

Despite the outcry when the state first set trap limits, by 1998, all seven zones had voluntarily reduced traps to 600 or 800 per fisherman, but critics said that since many lobstermen traditionally fished even fewer traps, the law had only succeeded in putting more traps in the water.
Trap numbers are estimated by the number of trap tags sold, and according to DMR statistics, in 2007 as many as 3.4 million tags were sold. Overall, Maine lobstermen are experiencing the lowest catch rate per trap haul since the 1980s. Average ‘soak time’ for traps has increased over the years to five days.

Lowering the number of traps and catching the same amount of lobsters is “not a groundbreaking idea,” said Wilson. “It’s not just theory, it’s fact. The novelty is we did it [with the Monhegan experiment] and now we have data for that area.” He will discuss the possibility of conducting similar experiments with different groups along the coast.

As for the success of the new Monhegan season and trap limit, Weber said, “We’re just doing what Monhegan has always done — fishing smarter. Ninety years ago, Monhegan established a ban on small lobsters. We had the first voluntary trap limit and the first closed season. Now we’ve done it again.”

“This is still an experiment. We try to change and adapt to the latest conditions of fishing. Lobsters have changed their movements a bit, so now it makes sense for us to change. Halving the number of traps is massively significant.”

At the present rate of fixed cost increases, Weber points out that “in about two months, the cost of diesel fuel (at $4 gallon in mid-April) will match the price we get for lobsters. If we hadn’t tried this and had another bad year, some of us would have been done.”