In the Gulf of Maine waters, the contrast couldn’t be more striking. Crustaceans are plentiful and the lobstering industry is thriving, while groundfish stocks are at all-time lows and the fleets are on the verge of extinction.

The effect of humans on the marine resources — from overfishing to policy making — is undeniable, controversial and little understood. And that’s where economic anthropologist James Acheson comes in.

In a two-year National Science Foundation-funded project, Acheson is taking a closer look at where policies and practices in the groundfish industry may have gone wrong through the years. His goal is to provide insight as to what management practices are effective — and why.

For Acheson, the bottom-line question is: Why does one management plan succeed and another fail?

“We can’t really implement plans if we don’t know what’s going on,” says Acheson, a University of Maine anthropology and marine sciences professor, named the 2009 distinguished Maine professor for his research connecting the social, cultural and environmental components of marine policy.

“The groundfishing industry is a case of scientific and institutional failure. We need to understand how it got there, and how other management practices were effectively put in place, in order to try and reverse the damage that’s been done. The evolution of the lobster industry is a perfect example to compare.”

For nearly 80 years, there has been a conservation effort in the lobster industry with regulations established, often with the help of industry people, to protect and manage the resource. Efforts to manage the groundfishing industry have been far less successful, and the reasons for this difference are far from clear, Acheson says.

Further exacerbating the disparity are the stocks. While lobster numbers are at an all-time high, groundfish stocks such as cod and haddock have reached a 500-year low.

A 1978 report co-authored by Acheson, “The Fishing Ports of Maine and New Hampshire,” noted there were 343 boats groundfishing in Maine and New Hampshire. Today in Maine, there are fewer than 25 boats, and some of those are only going out a few days a year.

Unlike the lobster industry where conservation rules were passed by Maine lawmakers in response to heavy lobbying by industry leaders, groundfishing is managed by the federal government. While Maine groundfishermen have expressed their opinions, they appear to have been disadvantaged in the industry’s top-down management process that takes little note of local input.

Why have those concerned with lobster management been able to devise effective conservation rules, while the groundfishery has not been able to do so?

The answer to this question isn’t obvious, says Acheson, whose extensive research on Maine’s lobster industry spans more than three decades and includes two seminal volumes, “The Lobster Gangs of Maine” and “Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry.” It can only be answered by exploring one of the most basic questions in the social sciences — namely, when and under what conditions will humans generate effective rules to constrain the behavior of individuals?

Acheson has studied the cultural and economic history of Maine’s lobster industry that has led to its modern co-management system that involves industry people in the rule-making process of protecting and managing the resource. Understanding and appreciating how that traditional fishery evolved has implications for its use as a model for fisheries worldwide — including New England groundfishing.

“We [wanted] to get back into the 1930s and find out what happened to change the lobster industry from a pack of bandits to one of the most conservation-minded industries in the world today,” Acheson says.

Proof of the success of the lobster industry’s resource management model is in trying economic times like this past season, when a price squeeze left lobstermen holding a good catch, while the market value of lobster dropped dramatically. Concurrently, bait and fuel prices reached all-time highs.

“The problems now are economic, not because of management,” Acheson says, but management may be able to help.

Lobsters used to be kept in a pound and shipped to suppliers as needed, but more recently the catch has been sent to processors in Canada. One aspect of the current problem is that Canadian processors are funded by banks in Iceland. But now, with Icelandic banks in trouble, they aren’t issuing the loans Canada needs to purchase lobsters.

“In a sense, it’s a failure of success,” Acheson says. “Successful management equals high supply.”

In a 2006 paper, “Lobster and Groundfish Management in the Gulf of Maine: A Rational Choice Perspective,” Acheson noted that since the mid-1950s, government organizations have attempted to regulate the groundfishery without much success. Since most groundfish are caught more than three miles from shore, fishermen are beyond the legal authority of individual states.

The management history of this decimated stock is vital to understanding how we got to where we are today, he says.

After World War II, the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries attempted to manage the fisheries by imposing quotas, but this wasn’t enforced. By the 1970s, stocks were so low that the foreign fleets had given up fishing in the Gulf of Maine.

In 1976, Congress passed the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, setting up a complicated bureaucratic apparatus to manage the fisheries in offshore waters. Under the act, the United States and its territories are divided into eight zones represented by regional councils. Council members are recommended by the governors of the states, and include representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The rules established by these councils have changed numerous times, making it difficult to get a handle on the actual status of the industry, Acheson notes.

Today, groundfishermen are pessimistic about the effectiveness of federal management efforts. Although many of the regulations groundfishermen proposed in the mid-1970s now have been imposed, Acheson writes that some say it’s too little too late.

In 1995, a management program was implemented to restore the stocks within five years, but attempting to rebuild so quickly meant strict rules that many harvesters claim drove them out of business.

The NSF project now under way is linked to the fisheries management research that Acheson has been doing since the 1970s. He also has done extensive work in forest management. Although it’s most often biologists who control natural resource management, Acheson says there’s a direct tie to anthropology.

“Regulations and rules are made by people [and] it’s people who obey them,” he says. “It isn’t the lobsters and the clams who obey them.”

In addition to Acheson, colleagues Roy Gardner at Indiana University, Dmytro Zhosan at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and Ann Acheson of UMaine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center are collaborating on the NSF project. The researchers are using multiple methods to collect information, including key informant interviews, historical research, participant observation, and a large-scale mail survey of nearly 600 people who held groundfishing licenses in Maine in the 1970s.

In the survey, Acheson poses important questions about management practices, hoping to shed light on what regulations those in the industry believe are effective. Questions range from industry inquiries, such as the target species, fishing locations and boat size to more personal queries about levels of education and reasons for leaving the industry.

“Groundfishing management was kind of convoluted and hard to understand, and no one to this date that we know of has compiled a history of it,” says recent anthropology graduate Michelle Martin who, along with junior Sarah Niemic, worked on the survey and archival portions of the project. “We got a lot of different answers.”

Acheson is now compiling the data from the approximately 100 surveys returned; Martin used the preliminary findings for her honors thesis.

In the coming year, Acheson and the other researchers will continue to gather and analyze the surveys and historical data. Acheson hopes industry officials and policymakers will use the study to make more well-informed decisions that will revive the groundfishing industry before it’s too late.

“We hope it’s not too late for this study to have an impact on a dying industry that’s such a large part of Maine’s history,” says Acheson. “If we are going to improve management, we must know what has worked and what hasn’t.”

Reprinted with permission from UMaine Today, winter 2009, a publication of the University of Maine.