Sustaining a thriving lobster fishery through science and community.
Lanesville team contributes to interstate lobster research
By Peter K. Prybot
Pat Earle's early morning low tide walk at Plum Cove Beach on one May day, combined with her natural curiosity and resultant questioning, opened up a rare scitntific opportunity.
It was not only for herself but also tor Cindy Dunn, Ward 4 Councelor Astrid afKlinteberg and her daughter, Carson, an O'Maley Middle School seventh grader.
For the last five months these Lanesvillers have collectively had fun and success sampling and recording physical, chemical and biological data at a designated inter-tidal Plum Cove Beach area for the Lobster Conservancy's BabyLobster Watch 2000.
Much of the project has centered on teh American Lobster. With this win-win experience, the ladies have gained precious hands-on learning which has also enhanced their knowledge of Cape Ann's marine ecosystem, leaviing them amazed at times, while The Lobster Conservancy of Friendship, Maine, has benefited from the resulting valuable Cape Ann lobster nursery data, too.
Run by Executive Director Sara Ellis. Ph.D., and President Diane Cowan, Ph.D., two highly-respected, knowledgeable and dedicated research biologists, The Lobster Consevancy's "purpose is to ensure healthy populations of the American lobster and preserve the traditional trap fishery that depends on this resource. We are primarily a scientific research esear organization."
This year the Conservancy has run a Volunteer Monitoring Program (Baby Lobster Watch 2000) in Maine, New Hampskire and Massachusetts, with the help of approximately 60 volunteers. This program "tracks The abundance and distribution of newly-settled and early juvenile lobsters in a cost effective way that builds a community stewardship ethic," said Ellis.
It is hoped the data will answer four main questions:
Cowan writes an "Ask the Lobster Doc" column for the popular Stonington, Maine, monthly trade journal, Commercial Fisheries News.
A chain of events led to the formation of the Lanesville scientific team.
"I was walking the beach at dead low tide when I encountered this woman with interesting scientific paraphernalia," said Earle, formerly Pat Kane, a proud fourth-generation Lanesville resident as well as a grandmother, a political consultant, and a founder of the annual Gloucester Seafood Festival.
"What are you doing and why?" Earke inquired,
The woman, who was Sara Ellis, responded, "I'm from The Lobster Conservancy, and I'm looking for lobsters."
Earle said Ellis also asked "if I would like to volunteer, and if I had any friends who would like to do so."
The idea immediately appealed to Earle, who right away thought of Astrid, also a criminal defense lawyer, and Carson.
Meanwhile in Salem, environmental lawyer Cindy Dunn and her Salem Sound 2000 group were holding a symposium on the state of the Sound when Ellis approached Dunn, the executive director, hoping to find more volunteers. She also wanted a forum to explain The Lobster Conservancy's project.
Consequently, Dunn volunteered later being introduced by Ellis to Earle and the afKlintebergs, thus completing the group.
I first introduced Ellis and her associate Diane Cowan to Cape Ann one bone-chilling April afternoon. After contacting these scientists during the winter for lobster information for an upcoming book of mine, they wanted me to find them several local lobster nursery sites.
They chose Plum Cove over Loblolly Cove for its relatively calm waters, excellent public access and cobble (small stones) lobster nursery habitat. After declining their offer to do the survey work due to lobstering time constraints, they were further disappointed by my not knowing of any potential volunteers, although I already knew Earle and afKlinteberg.
Next, Ellis prepped and then equipped Team Lanesville with a transect, very accurate metric, temperature, salinity, and size measuring equipment, and "General Data" and "Quadrant Data" sheets to record the information.
Then in June at its lowest astronomical early morning tide, the women began their usually once-a-month endeavor, which generally takes over an hour each time. They had just finished sampling in October when the lowest tide occurred late in the afternoon. Low light conditions then hampered them.
Typically attired in rain slickers and either boots or neoprene waders, they would first record in situgeneral data including the weather, sea state, and air, water, and sediment temperatures. Then they would tackle the specific, which would involve analyzing a 20 meter long transect, primarily small-rock shoreline edge of the beach's Bay View side channel --one square meter often rock by rock, at a tlme.
Besides identifying and recording the flora and fauna's diversity and numbers, their main thrust would center on the American lobster: its numbers, sizes, sex, and such external characteristics as shell hardness and presence of two claws and either a right or lefthanded crusher claw. The data would be sent in monthly.
Ellis' initial training of the group not only included proper scientfic sampling, but also handling of the little lobsters.
"We urge that people don't do this on their own; they are likely to injure the lobsters," stressed Earle.
Also, lobster catching and their protection, especially the undersized lobsters ("the shorts") and the oversized ones (the large male and female brood stock), along with the egg-bearing and "V-notched" females are regulated by both state and interstate (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, ASMFC) laws, which include licensing and minimal and maximum legal sizes, and the returning of egg-bearing and V-notched females to the ocean. The Lobster Conservancy has a special scientific permit to handle lobsters, too.
What were some of the Plum Cove area lobster highlights? The smallest lobster had a carapace (body) length of 10 millimeters, the total creature being about an inch long, while the largest lobster's carapace measured 75 millimeters.
"The smallest size represents baby lobsters that are just entering the population (less than a few months old), while the larger size is approximately four years old," explains Ellis. Many of the lobster shells were soft, characteristic of a recent molt, too.
Also, the group recorded the most lobsters, 30, in July. As the water temperature declined, the lobster numbers have dropped, too. The late-afternoon fall low tide's accompanying low light probably hampered the group's efforts to find more lobsters in the area.
The Lanesville team at the same site also found and recorded numerous other invertebrates including isopods, amphipods, nudibranchs, scale worms, sea urchins, brittle, sea, and blood stars, sea anemones and sulfur sponge, along with brown, green and red and even coralline algae, and numerous rock eels.
"It is safe to say the Plum Cove Beach area is a rich nursery ground. The highest density of lobsters found there this year was 1.2 lobsters per square meter, which is fairly high compared to many sites, but not the highest," explained Ellis.
Lobsters belong to the largest and most successful invertebrate phylum, the arthropods, which inhabit the land, air and water, including insects, horseshoe crabs, shrimps and barnacles.
Having an outer shell, lobsters grow by molting their old shells and growing new ones underneath, adding about a quarter of an inch in length each time.
The youngee the lobster, the greater it's molting frequency, which is usually done in warmwater, safe and protected areas. June is a traditional lobster shedding month.
Baby lobsters are typically hatched in either June or July after their hard-shelled mothers, carrying varying amounts of lightcolored, swollen, ripe eggs in the thousands on their abdominal undersides, arrive inshore.
Like shrimp, the eggs gradually hatch on the mother, who often fans the larvae off into the water where they will become temporarily planktonic.
After molting several tunes in the upper water coIumn, the tiny creatures settle to the bottom looking like a tiny lobster.
Here they quickly seek cover, preferring rocky nursery areas like Plum Cove.
Generally, a mere handful of the original egg mass survive their early lives, first commonly being consumed by planktivorous menhaden and herring and later by cod, dogfish sharks, sea ravens, and the newest threat, striped bass.
Despite an occasional lobster bite on the finger, barnacle scrapes, muscle strain from lifting and overturning heavy rocks, a boot-full of water, and midget and mosquits bites, "This has been outstandingly fun," said Astrid afKilinteberg.
"It's been very interesting scientifically and rewarding to do something for community-based fishing," added Dunn.
"We have looked forward to doing this work every month. Where else can you have your cake and eat it and do something for the community?" asked Earle.
"This group was great. They've been out there every month in the wee ours of the morning or evening as needed," said Ellis.
Various aspects of this project which will continue next year, have amazed the ladies, too.
"Even though I go into the inter-tidal zone all the time and have a degree in marine biology, I had no idea little lobsters were under those rocks," said Dunn, who was also fascinated by "the way the tiny lobsters look exactly like a regular lobster."
In addition, different things about the little lobsters amazed afKlinteberg and her daughter, especially "how fresh the small ones are they are like little yippy dogs," Astrid said.
Carson even found a baby blue-colored lobster, "I am amazed that some lobsters can be blue."
Earle was awe struck by "the diversity of seaweeds and other critters you can find in a square meter when you look."