As an oceanographer on the deck of a large research vessel one night back in the early 1990's, I could see lights on the horizon from nearly a dozen lobster boats at work. Out there on Georges Bank, hundreds of miles from shore, the idea occurred to me that perhaps these fishemen could help us.  Perhaps they were interested in physical oceanography and may be willing to collect some data. I subsequently visited the docks and spoke with them. It turns out they were curious about what we were doing and what we were finding. This began my multi-decade relationship with many lobstermen not only from Georges Bank but along the entire New England seaboard.

The "Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps (eMOLT)" project began in 1995 with lobstermen securing temperature probes on their traps at fixed locations. The project has evolved over the years to include other instruments such a salinity sensors, current meters, acoustic listening devices, and cameras but the least expensive and easiest to maintain for the long haul is the simple temperature probe. After several years of attending their "lobstermen association meetings" and "fishermen forums" at local bars and meeting halls from Massachusetts to remote locations in Nova Scotia, we have developed mutual appreciation for our respective roles in monitoring and understanding the important physical oceanographic changes that may be taking place in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine and the Southern New England Shelf. Afterall, aside from oceanographers, what segment of society is more interested in what is occuring at the bottom of our ocean that these lobstermen who spend their days on the water and make their living on what feeds there? I have yet to meet a lobstermen who does not believe that bottom temperature somehow governs the activity of their prey and affects their catch rate.

Maine Fishermen Forum Picture

More than 60 participants have now collectively obtained over five million observations of bottom temperature and are now familar with the various cycles of variability ranging from hourly to decadal time scales. They have provided evidence for the processes driven by tides, winds, and the longer-term effects of large North Atlantic-wide dynamics.

The routine is this: They lash the devices on their trap for the entire fishing season (which sometimes last the entire year) and then mail them in. We process the data, store it on a web-served archive, send them hardcopy plots, post them at emolt.org, and then mail the probe back to the fishermen.

As often happens in science, one question leads to another and we find ourselves redirected on a new path. Analogous to water parcels dispersed in the ocean, the project bifurcated in 2004. As a NOAA oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, having listened to various lobster biologist for a few years, I began to understand the importance of the early life stage of the lobster's development. With each lobster apparently releasing nearly a million eggs, the fate of these animals in their first few weeks of life was obviously related to other physical oceanographic processes such the surface currents. Given our existing network of lobstermen at this time, it was easy to outfit some of them with a set of low-cost satellite-tracked drifting buoys which they could easily deploy in the various locations where spawning was known to occur. This turn of events developed into the eMOLT Drifter Project. It has resulted in a huge database of tracks with student-built drifters collectively logging more than 500,000 kilometers of ocean. It provides us with a better understanding of the transport pathways of New England's coastal waters and beyond. It provides the students who build them an opportunity to conduct hands-on research and contribute to the university-level science of oceanography. As in the case of the time series data from fixed locations described above, the observations of current provide numerical circulation modelers the data they need to assimilate and validate their simulations. More than 30 labs around the country have used these new instruments for various applications. In 2010, for example, dozens of these units were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico to help track the spill. The proceeds of each drifter sold by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation spawns funding for another instrument to be subsequently deployed.

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So, the project now sustains itself.  The lobstermen now understand that the data they collect is not for themselves but perhaps for their great grandchildren, that some processes are not detectable in one life time, and that it is important to have the baseline information.  While the numbers of lobsters caught continues to rise with record landings this past year, at some point in the future those numbers may fall and questions will arise.  How is our environment changing over long periods and how do these changes effect the entire ecosystem?

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