Plan for Preserving Lobster Population Stirs Storm in Maine

Lobstermen and scientists debate how best to ensure future viability of the crustacean and the industry

For Patten White, hauling lobster cages off the ocean floor is a labor of love.

He revels in the opportunity to be out on the choppy sea, balancing traps on boat's edge. He's even willing to return more lobster to the deep than he sets aside for selling. The main reason he does this: He wants to ensure that future generations have a chance to trap in the Atlantic, as he has done for much of the past 40 years.

It's this unusual conservation ethic, say lobstermen and preservationists, that has allowed lobsters to escape - so far - the overfishing that has devastated flounder in the Northeast and salmon in the Pacific.

But the fragile coexistence of the crustaceans and their captors is breaking down as more lobstermen begin dropping more traps off the East Coast and technological advances make lobster fishing more efficient.

For a decade, scientists have warned that lobsters are being caught at a faster rate than they can reproduce. An independent report to be published this week is expected to corroborate the scientists' claims. The National Marine Fisheries Service, too, this month plans to conduct its first lobster-population survey in three years - a move that is expected to produce more evidence of a lobster population at risk.

Ironically, the grave assessments come after two years of record-breaking catches. Last year in Maine - the source of 60 percent of the country's lobsters - 37 million pounds of lobster were hauled in, second only to 1994's yield of 39 million pounds. That's nearly double the state's annual catches in the 1980s, which hovered around 20 million pounds.

Scientists attribute the larger harvests in part to a rise in water temperature and a decline in lobsters' predators, such as codfish. But they also say that more lobsters are being caught because more traps are being set.

With New England's groundfish industry nearly ground to a halt as a result of overfishing, some fishermen are switching to lobstering as a way to pay the bills. In addition, many lobstermen who spent half their time fishing cod or haddock are now trapping lobsters year 'round.

States have imposed limits on the number of traps to prevent overfishing, but the controls appear to have had an inadvertent effect of increasing traps. Lobstermen are now using as many traps as the law allows, though in the past they might have used substantially fewer.

The longer that catches are up, scientists note, the harder it is to convince lobstermen and the public of the need for conservation measures. "Lobster landings have been at a record high. Many interpret that as a sign of health of the resource," says Jay Krous, Maine's lobster biologist. "The reality of the matter is that you have to understand a myriad of factors to understand the lobster population."

Marine biologists concede that New England lobstermen have a long-standing respect for the ocean and its lobsters, but they say the industry's traditional preservation methods are no longer enough to safeguard the lobster population. Lobstermen with hydraulic lifts and radar technology can harvest an increased number of traps each day. These tools of the trade are expensive, driving lobstermen to catch as many lobster as possible to recover their investment.

Tradition, especially in Maine, means that lobstermen continue to rely on a 40-year-old method of voluntarily marking female lobsters and returning them to the water. Massachusetts lobster biologist Bruce Estrella says this measure doesn't take into account scientific advances that point to more effective protection measures.

Now, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is turning over some of its regulatory authority to the states, a move that some scientists and lobstermen hope will help to resolve their conflicts.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, with representatives from each state that has lobsters off its shores, this year has taken over the task of drafting a lobster-protection plan. NMFS regulations in federal waters - three miles off shore - will be designed to complement the commission's plan.

Others, however, are not so sure the change can remove the inherent conflicts between scientists and lobstermen. "Lobster-management measures have been taken over the years, but nobody wants to bite the bullet," says Maine's Dr. Krous. "It's all passing the buck."

Biologists and lobstermen agree that to save lobsters from depletion the amount of trapping must be reduced and more egg-bearing females need protecting. The controversy is over what methods to use to achieve those goals.

The easiest way to curtail the amount of trapping is to restrict the number of traps. But full-time lobstermen say across-the-board caps are unfair. Why should someone supporting a family be held to the same standard as a retired, part-time lobsterman?

"At this point, I'm pretty heavily invested in it - and not just monetarily," says Mark Sewall, whose family has been trapping lobsters in waters off York for generations.

Scientists say the best way to keep egg counts high is to raise the minimum-size lobsters that can be trapped. The current size limit of 3-1/4 inches is not large enough, they say, to allow most females to lay one set of eggs, much less reproduce repeatedly.

But lobstermen worry they will lose customers who want smaller lobsters. Without that option available, buyers will look to Canada, where there is no minimum size, they say.

One possible solution is being tested this summer in Maine. The state has designated 12 coastal zones to allow lobstermen some control over the kinds of restrictions put in place. Krous says time will tell whether this is a solution for other states.

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