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Thursday, August 30, 1998


By Jean Marbella
Sun National Staff
©Copyright 1998

Used with permission.

ROCKLAND, Maine -- With a flourish, the cooks unlatch the so-called World's Largest Steamer. Some 400 lobsters, bright red after their 11-minute steam bath, are hauled out and rushed to the crowds lined up to crack into them. Another 400 go into the steamer, and another and another over a weekend in which lobster is king but also lunch.

The Maine Lobster Festival held here this month is a small town's salute to the state's iconic crustacean. There was much to celebrate: Maine lobstermen are coming off their best year ever, having caught 46.3 million pounds of sweet bounty in 1997, with a value of $136.1 million.

But even as a parade of homemade floats rolled down Main Street and this year's Sea Goddess was crowned, bubbling just beneath the surface were fears that the reasons for celebrating this unique slice of coastal life may be fading.

Lobsters are being over-fished and the population is in danger of collapse, say federal regulators who are considering new restrictions on fishermen that would take effect next year. The measures could include increasing the legal size of lobsters that can be sold and reducing the number of traps each fishermen can haul.

But some lobstermen counter that overfishing isn't the problem: over-regulation is.

"We're getting it from all levels," said Dave Cousens, a fisherman and president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "But from my view, the lobstering has never been better."

Both sides agree that lobsters indeed are plentiful. The disagreement comes over how much longer this abundance will last.

"This can't go on forever," said Steve Murawski, chief of the population dynamics branch at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to announce new restrictions soon. "The amount of catch has gone up faster than the amount of stock has gone up. No population grows at an exponential rate forever. The lobster fishery is at a danger point. It is one bad year away from disaster."

Doomsayers can point to several recent collapses of other fisheries that similarly were coming off record years. Haddock catches, for example, peaked just before their stock at Georges Bank collapsed. And in Alaska, fishermen enjoyed 15 straight years of abundant red king crabs followed by a collapse.

With Maine's lobsters, it's not just the size of recent catches that is troubling, said Murawski, who is based in Woods Hole, Mass. It's also that 90 percent of the lobsters caught have just reached the legal size limit, meaning they are juveniles that haven't had a chance to breed the next generation yet. This bodes badly for the replenishment of the population, he said.

Rising Debate

The debate over conservation is reaching new levels as state and federal officials increasingly regulate the notoriously independent fishermen. The state has jurisdiction over the waters up to three miles from shore, where federal control takes over.

"It's a way of life for a lot of generations. It shouldn't be taken away," said Wayne Fowler, a volunteer cook manning the steamer at the festival and a one-time lobster boat worker. The heightened restrictions have convinced him to take a "land" job, at a Nautica distribution center in town, rather than try for his own lobster operation.

The image of the lobsterman in his yellow storm gear, the captain of his boat and his destiny, is one of the state's enduring symbols. Maine by far leads the nation in lobster catches, trapping half the U.S. total and twice as much as the next state, Massachusetts.

But in recent years, this once simple way of life has become more complicated and more competitive.

As other fish populations have plummeted, many fishermen have switched to lobstering. Faced with new competition, some lobstermen have increased the number of traps that they haul, which in turn can necessitate a bigger boat and crew. To offset their higher expenses, they have had to fish longer and harder, putting additional pressure on the lobster stock --and leading to further government restrictions to protect the valuable fishery.

It is testimony to how complicated lobstering has become in this new era of regulation that there are disputes even within the opposing sides: Lobstermen are arguing among themselves, with some favoring heightened conservation measures and others suing those very restrictions. And there is disagreement among scientists over the severity of the overfishing problem -- or whether it actually exists.

'Absolute Crisis'

"We've been in absolute crisis in Maine," said lobsterman Pat White, shaking his head as he piloted his boat Restless II through calm waters off the coast. "This whole business, it's just invariably become crisis management. We don't do anything until there's a crisis."

White, 58, has been fishing since his teens, although as executive director of the state lobstermen's association he finds himself increasingly on land, dealing with his industry's changes.

"This is a public resource. It's our responsibility to protect it for him," White said, nodding toward his 8-year-old grandson Cody, who has come along to band lobster claws and play with the crabs and fish that sometimes end up in the traps.

"It's a hard way to earn a living," White said, "but a great way to live a life."

On this cloudless morning off the rocky coast, it indeed seems like a grand life. But this is work, not yachting. White hauls trap after trap out of the water for several hours. His right arm is wrapped in an Ace bandage because of what he calls the lobsterman's version of tennis elbow.

After several hours of pulling up about 100 traps tethered to his blue, yellow, and red buoys, White ended up with about 90 keepers and 150 that had to be thrown back because they were undersized or were egg-bearing females.

White's net was 103 pounds of lobsters, for which the current market price ranges from less than $3 to about $4 a pound depending on whether they have soft or hard shells.

The markup by the time the lobster makes it to the consumer can be substantial: Lobster meals which usually feature a 1.25 pounder with some sort of accompaniment, generally cost $10 to $20 at restaurants along the coast.

Trap Management

While much attention has focused on reducing the number of traps each lobsterman can haul, White and others believe that rarely has the desired effect: Those above the limit are forced to reduce, but those below the limit can increase to the maximum, so there may not be a reduction in the total number of traps.

That is what has happened in Maine. In 1995, the state adopted a conservation law that created a schedule for reducing the trap limit: to 1,200 this year; 1,000 by 1999; and 800 by the year 2000. And yet today, there are as many traps off the coast of Maine as in 1995 -- about 3 million.

"What we need to do," White said, "is get management away from legislators."

Many admire how Monhegan Island, for example, took charge of its own fate. This year, Monhegan's fishermen convinced legislators to create a two-mile lobster conservation zone around their island. In those waters, only the current 14 license holders can fish for lobsters, with 600 traps each, and only from Dec. 1 to June 25. (Future lobstermen would have to serve an apprenticeship on an existing boat and wait until one of the 14 gives up his license.)

Local self-determination has worked to some extent on the mainland as well: The Maine coast has been divided into seven local zones, each allowed to set its own trap limit, as long as it does not exceed that of the state.

But with democracy comes disputes. White's zone, the southern-most stretch of the coast, experienced a drop in catches last year even as the state total jumped, and fishermen there voted to reduce their trap limit to 800 this summer rather than wait until 2000.

Lobstermen how haul the largest number of traps protested that they had been outvoted by those who haul fewer. Four of the large-scale lobstermen sued, alleging that the accelerated reduction was adopted illegally. A Superior Court judged granted them an injunction preventing the new limit from being enforced until the law suit can be heard.

Despite such occasional rebellions, most lobstermen believe in conservation, White said. The problems, he said, come when proposed new restrictions strike them as misguided.

"Fishermen have been resisting," he said, "but only because they're not being given good reasons."

Counting Lobsters

In an attempt to get better data, Maine Gov. Angus King recently announced increased efforts to sample and predict trends in the lobster population. Scientists who previously worked independently will begin sharing data, and some will accompany lobstermen on their hauling trips to record what they pick up in their traps.

Lobsters, which are highly migratory, have never made census-taking easy.

"If you're a cattle farmer, it's easy to determine how many cows you have in a pasture," said Bob Steneck, a lobster biologist with the University of Maine who is part of the new effort.

Steneck has been counting Maine lobsters for 15 years. He scuba dives to count the number in one area, returning year after year to track trends. What he's found makes him more optimistic than the federal biologists.

"The feds have a model that tells them the lobster stock is at risk. I'm less confident in that model than they are. There are other measures that show we're not in the dire straits that they say we're in," he said.

"Populations have been consistent until the last decade, when they increased dramatically," Steneck said. "There has been a doubling of the population."

Looking Under Rocks

Lobster hunter: At low tide, biologist Diane Cowan of the Lobster Conservancy tracks baby lobsters that grow for several years under rocks in coves along the Maine coast before migrating to deeper waters.
Also joining the state's efforts is Diane Cowan, a biologist who runs the nonprofit research group, The Lobster Conservancy. For about six years, Cowan has been tracking baby lobsters that nest under rocks in various coves along the Maine coast. The coast is the lobster's nursery. Here, under rocks, is where lobsters spend the first several years of life growing. After that, they generally migrate toward deeper waters.

Every month, at low tide, Cowan and volunteers head out to count and tag lobsters. Early one recent morning, Cowan worked the shallow waters off Orr's Island in Casco Bay, checking under rocks for tiny, squirming lobsters. Each was measured, then had a thin wire encoded with data inserted in a leg, before being replaced under its rock.

Valuable quarry: Tiny, squirming lobsters such as this 2-year-ld are measured, tagged and replaced under a rock.
Occasionally, Cowan would find a tagged lobster; with those, she would remove the tag for study in her lab. There under a microscope, Cowan can read its data, revealing where it was tagged, where it has migrated and how much it's grown. It is painstaking work that yields answers only in the long term.

"The more we know about a species, the better we can conserve and manage the species," she said. "Maybe we can then make predictions on what will happen in the future."

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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