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Wednesday, April 22, 1998


By Ian Menzies
Patriot Ledger Columnist
©Copyright 1998

Used with permission.

Have lobsters really disappeared from the old "hot spots" in Boston Harbor, and from harbor communities along the North and South shores?

Lobstermen say "yes."

And if so, will lobsters in turn disappear from waters farther out in Massachusetts Bay when the huge, new (24 feet in diameter) 9.5 mile tunnel begins dispersing millions of gallons of effluent daily this fall?

Scientists think not.

Lobstermen believe the culprit driving out lobsters from inshore waters is the chemical chlorine, which is used in secondary treatment plants to improve water quality. Their concern is that when the tunnel takes over dispersing effluent farther out in Massachusetts Bay the same problem might arise. Scientists feel that it isn't the chlorine as much as the fact that in 1991 the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority stopped dumping 400,000 gallons of sewage sludge daily into Boston Harbor.

But the sewage, upgraded one step to sludge, no longer goes into Boston Harbor or other harbors with secondary treatment plants. In Greater Boston's case, it is now converted usefully into fertilizer pellets at the specially built pelletizing plant at Quincy's Fore River shipyard.

It may be an ugly thought to some but there is no denying that raw sewage or sludge attracts lobsters and fin fish. They may not dine on the waste directly but on the small invertebrates that do.

Of the half-dozen scientists I talked with, all pointed out that there were several reasons, beyond chlorine, as to why lobstermen were complaining that fewer lobsters were around.

Bruce Estrella, chief lobster biologist at the South Shore Field Station of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, didn't hesitate to say that lobsters are being overfished "and that not enough females are being allowed to produce eggs."

It is well-documented today that lobstermen have to fish double the number of traps they did 10 years ago in order to catch the same number of lobsters. Some because of the dearth of inshore lobsters, are going as far out as Stellwagen Bank to lay their traps.

Estrella says that in some spots traps are so dense that they get criss-crossed and a lobsterman has to haul someone else's trap in order to raise his own.

The entire lobster/water quality story  -- the riddle of Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay  -- is in fact something of a paradox. First we have George Bush charging in the 1988 presidential race that Gov. Michael Dukakis oversees the "dirtiest harbor in the nation." Then we clean it up. And now it's almost being suggested that it would have been better had we left it dirty.

This led Estrella to call the present media uproar "ludicrous."

"But it's right for lobstermen to be concerned," says Mike Connors of Norwell, MWRA director of environmental quality. "They are having a difficult time, their catch is down."

"We want to make sure we're not affecting lobsters and will continue monitoring studies." He added, however, "that lobsters are not the most sensitive canaries. That role falls to small shrimp, which are even more sensitive to water quality than lobster eggs."

Ecologist Kari Lavalli, of the nonprofit Lobster Conservancy at Orr's Island, Maine, currently visiting at Woods Hole, says "in some areas it is estimated that as much as 70 to 90 percent of the fishable lobster population is taken each year, putting the fishery on the brink of disaster." It takes seven to nine years for a lobster to grow large enough to be fished legally.

"If lobstermen and the industry want to get up in arms about something, then it should be coastal development . . . blame the thousands of developers and owners who want to have houses with an ocean view and who don't care if they destroy the coastal habitat to get that view."

Lavalli feels the single most important issue for the future of the lobster fishery is to halt the destruction of the shallow coastal regions  -- the nurseries  -- through dredging, filling, plowing salt marshes and building along the shore line.

"If you couple this nursery habitat damage with overfishing that alone could account for the reduction of lobster numbers in those areas."

While very concerned, I found lobstermen like Fred Dauphinee of Scituate, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen's Association, remarkably understanding of the complexity of the whole problem.

He is among the first to say that female lobsters need greater protection so they can safely reach their egg-bearing years, but he has also noticed  -- "we as fishermen have to be observant"  -- that not only lobsters are scarce but blackbacks (flounder) and even mussels. Why?

And Bill Adler who fishes out of Marshfield and is executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, spoke of the business end and the importance of lobstering to the South Shore.

For instance how many South Shore residents realize that Marshfield is the No. 2 port in Massachusetts in the poundage of lobster landed, and Plymouth is No. 3? Only Gloucester lands more.

The South Shore town-by-town count of landings for 1995, the latest year, is rather interesting: Cohasset, 475,000 pounds; Duxbury, 76,000; Hingham, 364,000; Hull, 336,000; Kingston, 39,000; Marshfield, 1,137,000; Plymouth, 1,116,000; Quincy, 6,100; Scituate/Norwell, 627,000; and Weymouth, 9,455.

The lobster  -- no offense to the sacred cod  -- is as Adler points out, "the most valuable single fishery species in Massachusetts today."

On the South Shore there are some 600 lobstermen, and landings are worth $13 million annually, some 25 percent of the Massachusetts total.

There is a tendency in the media to portray an issue such as this as confrontational  -- lobstermen versus scientists  -- but there are few indications that this is happening. The scientists, and agencies involved, have shown concern and have promised to remain alert to continuous monitoring.

Let us hope that Lavalli's concluding statement comes true: "From all available data, it doesn't appear that the new outfall will have the kinds of negative effects on lobsters that have been reported."

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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