Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 7, 2022 and The Weekly Packet, April 7, 2022
More vexing changes for lobster industry
Fisheries management council wants larger minimum sizes
Jeff Eaton and David Tarr pay close attention to Kathleen Reardon’s presentation on a plan to conserve baby lobsters.
by Leslie Landrigan
About 50 lobstermen came to Town Hall on March 31 to learn about a proposal to lengthen the minimum size of legal lobsters.
The meeting came just a month before the effective date of the much-resented, much-litigated rules to protect right whales. Several Marine Patrol officers came to the meeting in case anyone tried to talk about whales. Some lobstermen had biting words for the plan to increase the minimum size. Some did manage to sneak in questions about the whale rules.
The proposal to raise lobsters’ minimum size results from data showing below-average numbers of baby lobsters settling on the ocean floor since 2014. The plan comes from the Atlantic States Fisheries Management Commission (ASFMC), the 15-state commission chartered by Congress to manage the Atlantic fishery.
“We know this is a big deal,” said Kathleen Reardon, lead lobster biologist from the Department of Marine Resources. Reardon, armed with slides, had come to sell the plan to the Lobster Zone C Council.
Local lobstermen currently face rising costs for fuel and bait. They must also make expensive and time-consuming gear changes to comply with the May 1 whale rules. As a group, they face spending millions of dollars in legal fees to challenge those whale rules. On top of that, the federal government recently announced even stiffer whale rules are in the works.
Reardon explained that the settlement of baby lobsters has fallen below average since 2014, but sublegals—lobsters just below the legal minimum—remained high. So long as the number of sublegals stayed high, ASFMC didn’t see a need to change the minimum requirement, she said.
“I can no longer say settlement is down, sublegals are high,” Reardon said, adding that sublegals have been down for about five years.
Still, Reardon said, lobster landings have exceeded 100 million pounds since 2010, despite falling off their 2016 record.
ASFMC had three options to protect lobster spawning grounds: trap reductions, seasonal quotas or changing the sizes of the gauges that measure lobsters. It chose gauge sizes in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank fisheries.
“A very small change in minimum size has a very big impact,” Reardon said.
But in other lobster zones, fishermen are already allowed to take lobsters smaller than the ones Maine lobstermen can take. In other lobster zones, too, fishermen can take lobsters with imperfect tails, while in Maine the tails have to be perfect.
Deer Isle lobsterman Jeff Eaton said it isn’t fair. “It seems like we’re the ones that are penalized the most,” he said. “We have the smallest minimum size, the smallest maximum size.”
Reardon said the only way to have an impact on the lobster population is to increase protections in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. That’s because 90 percent of all lobster landings come from the waters stretching from Cape Cod Bay to the Canadian border.
On the bright side, she said, changing the gauge size will mean heavier lobsters.
In the 1980s, gauge sizes were changed, the lobster population rose, and fishermen caught fatter lobsters.
Elephant in the room
Several fishermen asked, Why bother with conservation since the whale rules will probably reduce the amount of lobster fishing that goes on in the Gulf of Maine anyway?
For example, the federal government closed 967 square miles of the Gulf of Maine to lobstering from October through January in order to protect right whales. Ginny Olsen, political liaison for the Maine Lobstering Union, asked if that annual closure had been taken into account when considering spawning-ground protection.
Reardon acknowledged the decision to raise the minimum size hadn’t considered the impact of the whale rules, but should.
Carla Guenther, chief scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, said waiting for the whale rules to settle will take too long.
Raising the minimum size of a legal lobster isn’t a done deal. Representatives of the 15 states that make up ASFMC will vote on it, probably sometime in August or October after a public hearing in June, Reardon said. Despite the size of Maine’s lobster fishery, the state—represented by DMR Commissioner Pat Kelliher—has only one vote.
The change, said Reardon, won’t take effect “for some time.”