Southern New England
Lobster Fishery Update
by Brenda Tredwell
While George’s Bank and Gulf of Maine lobster stocks are healthy, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Species Stock Status for the Southern New England Lobster Fishery classifies lobster as depleted and over-fished.
The lobster population from Lobster Management Areas 2 to 6—down to North Carolina—has declined.
At the Fishermen’s Forum, Carl Wilson, chief lobster biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries (DMR) cited management challenges that include retaining the historical structure of the southern New England lobster fishery, while proposing the use of scientific controls to initiate re-building, including evaluation of the characteristics unique to each zone and studying lobster stock recruitment for each area.
Fleet size, trends in fishing effort with an accounting of licensed and inactive lobstermen will all factor into management decisions. “We need an appropriately-scaled fishery,” said Wilson.
Some favor limited entry, or a proposal to close the southern New England fishery from June to September 30 (shedding season) which would allow lobsters time to release eggs. Massachusetts lobsterman Norbert Stamps said, “We don’t let those lobsters egg out.” He‘d like to see a ‘no soft shell rule.
Scientists have a very limited amount of data for the offshore lobster population, including reproduction and juvenile settling “Those research loops need to be closed,“ said Wilson. A development team will explore long and short-term management options.
“We don’t have all the tools in the toolbox to implement data right away,” Wilson concluded.
“Effort was up when stocks were up,” commented one fisherman. “The fleet was two times the size it is now with twice as many traps in the water.” In 2003, regulators adopted stricter V-notch regulations , changed the gauge and implemented a history-based trap allocation program. Voluntary reduction in fishing efforts would include some fishing fewer traps.
According to Bill Adler, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, Massachusetts had 1,331 licensed lobstermen, with 900 active. Adler confirmed, “That number has dropped into the 800s.”
One game plan is a volunteer buyout. Adler said, “Everyone’s running down two separate tracks. Some fishermen did support the buy-out track, while management is running down another… The train‘s left the station.”
A re-building program for Southern New England stocks was established in 2007. In July of 2010, The American Lobster Management Board conservation measure would have established a 5-year ban on lobstering south of Cape Cod. The moratorium, dubbed “the nuclear option” was rejected. It was noted by the Technical Committee that management, by closing down a fishery, provides no guarantee stocks will successfully regenerate.
Bernie Feeney supports a volunteer buy-out, saying harvesters would be better off taking it than being edged out of the fishery through regulation. “Take enough away from everybody, it’ll make some of us paupers.”
Feeney mentioned the need for permit banking, expressed concern over permit availability and rationalized, “The Government needs to take responsibility for its mandates and start funding buy-outs.” A buyout would come from Congress. Funds are short. “Any of these management schemes only work when everybody’s on board,” cautioned Carl Wilson.
“There’s an ultimate cost. Area 2 fishermen in Massachusetts have given up so much for naught. Mother Nature dealt that hand, but the ones paying from the wallet are fishermen,” Feeney said. “If nothing gets better in 5 years, It’s ‘well, that didn’t work.’ We need to re-look at how we manage fisheries.” Wilson felt a 25 percent landings decrease was almost the same thing as a moratorium.
John Carter of Bar Harbor cited a list of issues with multi-species management, concluding, “By managing some species (striped bass for the recreational fishery and cod) you’re hurting others.” In a word, eco-system management needs to replace single-species targeting.
Fluctuations in the southern New England lobster population could be attributed to habitat, environmental conditions, species interaction, natural cycles. Temperature is one variable, as are physiological stressors. Bill Adler, figures, “As lobsters moved from inshore waters to colder, deeper water, the eggers moved. Eggs float, and south of Martha’s Vineyard, current takes the eggs south, and East of Long Island. When offshore eggs hatched, larvae went south instead of inshore.”
“Lobster is managed under the Atlantic Coastal Act (1993), not Magnuson,” said Adler, who mapped out the territory over the phone from MLA headquarters in Scituate. LMA 2, (with 180 active Massachusetts lobstermen fishing coastal and offshore waters) includes New Bedford, Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, the Outer Cape, all of Rhode Island, to the tip of Connecticut. In 2000, 642 (MA) lobstermen were licensed in Area 2, with just 296 active.
“Area 3 is huge,” explained Adler. “It starts at the Hague Line, 40 miles offshore, and goes the whole coast, offshore.” With offshore landings for Area 3, unique issues exist.” With the proposed 3-1/2 measure, lobster will not be able to be transported to southern New England states. Lowering the maximum size for the inside section of the offshore fleet creates more problems. Area 4 runs from the outside of Long Island (NY) to New Jersey, and Area 5 extends to the Carolinas. Area 6 is Long Island Sound.
Adler described some of the management challenges. “The biologists are upset because three stock areas don’t match up with management areas. The offshore fishermen, south of Massachusetts to New York, have a piece of the southern NE stock in their area.” The current legal size in the offshore area is 3 1/2" minimum and a 6 3/4" maximum. Part of the proposal would lower the gauge to 5 1/4" in the inside section of Area 3.
Adler mentioned that a recent peer report that suggested stock abundance is returning to more normal levels after an anomaly during the 1990s when the stock was way up. After that unusual peak, he said stocks are slowly re-adjusting to the normal levels.
An ASMFC Draft Addendum will be presented on March 21 in Virginia. If the Addendum is approved it would go to public hearings. A final decision would not be made until the next Lobster Board Meeting.
An approved management plan will go into place in January 2012 at the earliest, estimates Adler. He said, “The greatest harm would come from the position: ‘We’ve got to do something - even if it’s wrong.’ We need some relief till the situation turns around….We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”