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Buried treasure

Volunteers study baby lobsters to ensure abundance

By Bette Keva

It may take an act of the Almighty to get a lobster license, but some salty souls can enjoy a form of lobster hunting without one.

A quartet of Marbleheaders - Jack Arnold, Oddvar Solstad, Rod Thibodeau and Sean Sullivan - have been donning boots and heavy gloves and hauling measuring tools as they walk over the rocky, shellewn surface of Little
Harbor near Brown's Island.

The morning light offers up iridescent colors on the shore as gulls squawk overhead and a pair of elegant swans paddle over to get a closer look at what the men are doing. They place a square meter over a cluster of rocks and sand - it's the same spot every month at astronomically low tide - and begin to flip over the rocks as they search for baby lobsters clinging to them.

"Marblehead has more baby lobsters per square meter than any other site from Boston to Canada," says Arnold. He and the others are volunteers with The Lobster Conservancy and are participating in a scientific research program
that monitors lobster growth in 20 nursery grounds Isle au Haut, Maine to Marblehead, accessible once a month at the lowest low tides.

What the volunteers learn will help The Lobster Conservancy determine whether the stocks are increasing, decreasing or remaining the same. It is a way for fisheries managers to attempt to sustain the delicacy and detect
changes in their numbers.

"As volunteers, we provide enough data to determine if the numbers of juvenile lobsters will be useful as predictors of commercial catches five, six, seven years from now. The idea of The Lobster Conservancy is to avoid an over-fished situation. The lobstermen are quite good at not abusing their resource. As best as we can tell, they are not being over-fished," says Arnold adding that scientists and lobstermen clash on the topic. "Now the scientists are collaborating with the fishermen and saying the lobstermen are right," said Arnold, citing an Atlantic Monthly article of last spring about lobstering in Maine.

This Sunday, he, Solstad and Thibodeau took a reporter and photographer out to the shores at low tide to demonstrate the work they do for two hours once a month from May through January. Despite a strong wind and unseasonably cold 30-degree temperatures, the three men pulled out their measuring tools, recorded data on forms and found no lobsters, but an invasive crab.

"We have an Asian short crab. It's invasive. It's one of the things we tally - how many crabs we find. The issue is, can crabs and lobsters exist under the same rocks," says Arnold. These invasives come in most likely on foreign ships and, like invasive plants, have no natural enemies here.

Also under the rocks the volunteers point out shells, barnacles and a mussel bed. One percent of what they find under there are lobsters. Volunteers measure the main shell as well as the total length and they determine the lobster's sex - not an easy task in a baby that may be as long as a fingernail.

When their investigation is complete, they place the lobster back onto the rock, tail first because "they like to back in," Arnold says. Then the rock is replaced just as it had been so the lobster is safe.

Volunteers also note the number of claws, antennae, missing parts, shell condition and distinguishing characteristics.

Arnold got involved as a volunteer when he saw the men turning over rocks from a window of his home overlooking Little Harbor. He went down to talk to them and decided to get trained to become a volunteer.

"It's a lot of fun and it's interesting. Until about 10 years ago nobody realized that juvenile lobsters were hiding under tidal rocks. We've got a lobster nursery right out here, perhaps the most abundant," says Arnold, who came to Marblehead from Maine five years ago.

"You have to be there at the right time. It takes a couple of hours. You have to look carefully to find lobsters ranging from the size of your thumb to approaching legal size. But normally they aren't legal. There's no real value in them," Arnold says.

The Lobster Conservancy has started a program of putting radio or sonar devices on the lobster to learn their migratory habits and where they breed.

"This is all new. It hasn't been studied before," Arnold says. "The experts have always been the lobstermen."

The Lobster Conservancy's goal is to see to it that objective data is collected on the lobsters.

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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