Sam Rosen, age 19, returned stateside late this spring after fishing a strip of ocean south of Australia known as the Tasmanian Roaring Forties. Fifteen-foot swells and typically foul weather characterize this region of the world, and it was there that Rosen worked for two months hauling 75-pound traps full of the southern rock lobster on trips lasting anywhere from one to three weeks.
Fishing for the Tasmanian rock lobster (which are clawless, unlike the American lobster) was part of Rosen’s six-month stay on the island of Tasmania, a small state about two-thirds the size of Maine off the southern coast of Australia.
With Tasmania as his lens, and after lobstering for nearly his entire life, Rosen has developed a novel assessment of the Midcoast lobster industry.
A Vinalhaven resident, he graduated from Vinalhaven High School in 2008. He deferred his entrance to college, however, after a Tasmanian fisherman whom he had met through the 2007 World Lobster Conference in Prince Edward Island, Neville Perryman, invited him to come fish on his family’s lobster boat.
“Neville invited me to come down to Tasmania to live with him and his family and go fishing,” Sam said. “I couldn’t pass it up,” Rosen said.
Rosen describes what he sees as the most significant differences between the Tasmanian and Vinalhaven fisheries.
“The Tasmania rock lobster industry has for a large part been successful due to tight cooperation among the fishermen,” Rosen said. He was impressed with the collaborative effort between government officials, aquaculture researchers, University of Tasmania students and diverse fishery council representatives that strengthens the industry.
“Tasmania’s unified [industrial] structure allows for effective communication among those working with marine resources,” he said. “The fisheries management body highly values the voices of the fishermen, and allows them to bring their input directly to them.”
Limits on trap counts, annual landings, and commercial fishing licenses also differentiate the Tasmanian and Maine lobster industries. While Maine divides its coast into zones in which up to several thousand fishermen work up to 800 traps each, the “Tasi” (as it is known) fishery hosts about 200 boats with only 50 traps per boat.
Tasi captains have the option to essentially trade traps they do not use or wish to sell since, ultimately, the emphasis in Tasi lobstering is on minimal vessels each with a relatively small number of traps.
“You’d see only a few boats,” Rosen said of a normal fishing trip in Tasmania. “Sometimes three boats in the distance, and only handful in closer to shore.”
Tasmanian government and research specialists annually assess the strength of the rock lobster population and adjust each season’s maximum industry-wide landing to reflect occurrences like higher larval settlements or lower catches from the year before, according to Rosen.
“Tasmania keeps a close eye on its annual stock assessment. [Researchers] do any number of these each year and make predictions based on what they think is an appropriate limit,” said Rosen.
Rosen emphasized that state regulations and a tradition of involvement empower Tasi fishermen to influence the marketing of their catch. He explained that fewer middlemen exist in the Tasmanian rock lobster market chain than he has seen in the U.S. trade, and that Tasi fishermen and their primary buyers closely monitor lobster prices and will hold their product in tanks during periods of high surplus.
Ultimately, lower lobster catch volume in Tasmania means increased (national) control over the industry and the country has worked to maintain the Tasi rock lobster as an internationally esteemed brand. “The red color of the rock lobster is highly valued in China…Buyers there consider it top-quality,” Rosen said.
And for all this, the Tasmanian rock lobster fishery is doing well. According to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics Web site, the Tasmanian rock lobster industry accounted for 11 percent of the country’s $342 million (in U.S. dollars) lobster catch in the 2007-2008 season. Buyers in coastal China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan consume most of Tasmania’s lobsters.
For Rosen, Tasmania was a chance not only to experience lobstering on the other side of the world, but an opportunity to observe how a small fishing community with an international market base conservatively manages its industry.
And Rosen is looking to integrate his knowledge of Tasi fishery management in his home community. He believes that “we on Vinalhaven could use the Tasi model [of fishery management], despite the differences between our systems.”
Indeed, one look at the liberal peppering of lobster pots along the Maine coast makes it difficult to imagine Midcoast lobster communities limiting their trap counts to 50 per captain or commencing weeks-long fishing trips offshore.
But Rosen is worried about the current trajectory of Midcoast lobstering. “The Vinalhaven fishing industry is overextended and we’re so precariously dependent on it.” Rosen said. He believes that too many fishermen are hauling too many traps.
On the other hand, he said, state-imposed limits on commercial fishing licenses could be ruinous to the industry.
“As far as the state goes, I think it could really help out its fishermen-when they’re down, bring them up, and bring them up together. A big thing would be voluntary license buy-outs-paying [fishermen] to leave the fishery for reductions.”
Ultimately, Tasmania for Rosen was a hands-on experience in alternative fishery practices, protection and sustainability. The stories and teachings Rosen brought back from his work abroad have given him a compelling measure against which to compare his hometown fishery. “I’m connected to two oceans,” he said.
Micah Conkling is participating in the Working Waterfront’s summer student writing program and is the son of Island Institute president, Philip Conkling.