Research by anthropologist James Acheson finds lobstermen's
traditional territorial boundaries provide the foundation for a modern
co-management system that can serve as a model for fisheries worldwide
A case the size of a small refrigerator
in the office of anthropologist James Acheson is stuffed with
navigational charts of the Maine coast. They show all the islands, coves
and harbors, but the most important lines are hand drawn in black and
red ink across stretches of water. The lines define unmarked lobster
fishing territories that were first documented by Acheson's research.
Such territorial boundaries are indicative of the long-practiced
self-management strategies that shore up Maine's age-old lobster
industry. Indeed, lobster territories are as much a part of the coastal
scene as ferry boats and fog. They are controlled exclusively by
individuals or groups of lobstermen, and woe unto the intruder who
decides to test the willingness of fishermen to defend their boundaries.
More importantly, they are an integral part of a culture of conservation
that has helped the Maine lobster industry to maintain high harvests,
even as other fisheries from New England to Asia experience sharp
declines and government closures.
In the mid-1990s, Acheson began hearing that lobster territories were
changing, even going out of existence. That's when he and graduate
student Jennifer Brewer interviewed 80 lobstermen and compared the
findings to those compiled in the 1970s. The result: "Those lines are
still there. No question of it," Acheson says.
The concept of exclusive fishing rights has now been built into Maine
law. In 1995, the state legislature established regional lobster zones –
one of the first efforts in the world to allow fishermen to exercise
meaningful responsibility for the rules that govern a commercial
fishery. In the opinion of Acheson, a University of Maine professor who
has studied the state's lobster industry for about 30 years, they were
"a radical concept."
Photo by Nick Houtman
Muscongus Bay Area, Mid-Coast Maine
Map reprinted from Capturing the Commons by James Acheson
Harbor Gang Territory
A map of inshore fishing areas in Maine's mid-coast region shows
several of the informal territorial boundaries used by lobstermen.
In 2000, the boundaries represented the farthest point most
fishermen from their respective harbors could go during the summer
lobster season without courting trouble from neighboring harbor
gangs defending their territories. Maine lobstermen fish year round,
but the crustaceans are less active as water temperature drops. In
the cold months of the year, lobster fishermen place traps in the
deep water areas offshore, where no territorial boundaries are
defended. Around Monhegan Island there is a conservation zone where
only Monhegan fishermen are allowed to trap. The zone started as a
perimeter-defended area, maintained and protected for generations.
Today, Monhegan's conservation zone is enforced by state law.
"Up until 1990, it was thought that
there were generally two solutions to resource management problems. One
was to privatize everything, and the other was to have the government
come in with top-down rules. Now there's a third option, and it's one
that we helped to get rolling. It's local governance."
The new zones encompass all of the lobster fishing harbors. The zone
boundaries were designed to take into account the informal territorial
In 2002, Maine lobstermen brought in more than 62 million pounds of
lobsters – one of the largest catches since record keeping began in
1880. According to the Lobster Institute at UMaine, the state produces
about 70 percent of the annual harvest in the United States.
Through his research, Acheson knows that such success is not just a fact
of nature. It has as much to do with the rules and traditions of lobster
Acheson has spent countless hours on the docks and at sea observing men
and women as they go about their work. He lived in a fishing community
for more than a year and helped fishermen check traps in foul and good
weather. He has surveyed them on subjects ranging from where lobsters
can be found to their attitudes toward neighboring fishing groups. He
has attended countless meetings of Maine lobster zone councils and
He described the cultural and economic aspects of those lobster fishing
communities in his 1988 book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine. His latest
volume, Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine
Lobster Industry, published this past spring, analyzes the political
side of lobster management.
Efforts to control lobster fishing date back more than a century to a
time when lobstermen, the Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries
(now Department of Marine Resources) and the state legislature ran the
show. Since then, the system has become more complex.
The federal government has become a major player in fisheries
management. Lobstermen debate proposed rule changes in their regional
council and before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Historically, Acheson says, Maine lobster fishermen have operated harbor
by harbor through a close-knit social network, known locally as "harbor
gangs." Lobstermen also speak of "a gang of traps" in reference to all
the traps that a single fisherman may have in the water at one time.
Harbor gangs enforce local rules about who fishes where and when. In
some cases, they have organized cooperatives where most members sell
their catch. As needed, gang members help each other out by checking
each others' traps or providing a tow.
Harbor gangs also defend their traditional territories. There is more
than a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the lobsterman who cuts the
lines or destroys traps of intruders. Nevertheless, Acheson emphasizes
that most fishermen strictly follow the law. They operate with required
licenses, return egg-bearing lobsters to the sea and observe limits on
the numbers of traps they can have in the water at one time.
It wasn't always that way.
"You've had a real culture change over the course of the last 70 years,"
Acheson says. "People in the 1920s and '30s were overfishing and
scrubbing eggs off lobsters. There was a massive trade in illegal size
lobsters; taking home short lobsters wasn't just considered normal, it
was an economic necessity."
Annual harvests then were a far cry from what they are today. They
fluctuated between 5 million and almost 8 million pounds.
What made the difference, Acheson says, is that fishermen began to
believe that conservation could work to their benefit.
"The biology of the lobster is the same. The lobster traps and social
organization, the harbor gangs, are largely the same. The rules are
largely the same. We've always managed by protecting the small juvenile
lobsters and large breeding lobsters. And we had all those rules in the
"At the end of the 1930s, an increasing number of guys started to obey
the law, and they insisted that other people do it too. The commissioner
of the Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries started to hear more
and more complaints. ‘You've got to send a warden down to such and such
harbor. I know a guy who's taking and selling short lobsters again. If
you send a warden down here, I'll help you.' You never saw that in the
Lobster landings started to rise in the 1940s and remained steady until
the '90s, when the harvest more than doubled. In 1995, the regional zone
councils conferred new authority on lobstermen. Acheson calls the law
that created the councils "the most important piece of legislation
concerning the lobster industry passed in the 20th century." He and
UMaine economist Jim Wilson had a hand in its creation.
"The new state lobster zones involve guys from a whole lot of harbor
gangs, people who used to fight and still do. So you get into a zone
meeting, and once in a while there are people who won't speak to each
other. But they're overcoming this," Acheson says.
The zone management law gives locally elected lobster councils authority
over three aspects of fishing: trap limits, the number of traps on a
single line and the time when fishing is allowed. This grassroots
approach departs from business as usual when rules are set and enforced
The councils have had their problems, but they have conducted elections,
debated important local issues and recommended regulations that have
been supported by the industry. They are working well, Acheson says.
"One of the critical questions we have to ask in resource management is
when, where, how and under what conditions you can get user groups to
pass rules to constrain themselves for communal benefit," he says. "From
an individual perspective, and in the absence of rules, it is rational
to get the resource before someone else comes along and takes it. It is
not at all clear in the social science literature under what conditions
people will pass effective rules."
Co-management, the idea behind the zone councils, has been criticized by
those who feel it gives too much authority to special interest groups.
"They feel it's like the fox guarding the chicken house," Acheson says.
"But we've got 13 out of the world's 16 major fisheries in crisis,
including all of the groundfisheries in the Gulf of Maine.
"There are very few cases where things have been done right. One of them
is the Maine lobster fishery, and there's a lot that we can learn from
Despite their early success, the new lobster management councils must
steer through rough waters stirred by serious conflicts. Some are
deep-seated, such as the different interests of full-time fishermen and
part-timers. Others stem from new policies, such as the boundary lines
adopted to separate zones, and the inherent difficulties in managing
politics in zones.
The ability of the councils to handle conflicts will determine their
future, Acheson says. Already, the councils have been used by state
government to respond to overarching concerns, such as right whale
conservation, and they have performed better than many observers
However, addressing such issues draws councils away from their primary
mission and the fishermen they represent.
"In the past, it was often one harbor against another, but the zones
have really superceded that. If you're going to make the zones work, all
the towns in an area have to have representatives who will work
"On the whole, they seem to be doing that," Acheson says.
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.