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A Modest Proposal to Sustain Lobsters and Lobstermen

Relax minimum legal size requirements, but reduce number of traps

Source: Oceanus Magazine

Something nagged Dick Allen during three decades of trapping lobsters in southern New England waters, where he and other lobstermen followed government regulations to keep the big ones and throw back the little ones. For years, stocks seemed healthy, but by 1999, warning signs indicated that lobstermen were beginning to struggle. And so were lobster stocks.

“I was consumed by it, all day, all night,” Allen said in an interview in June, a year after selling his fishing boat Ocean Pearl because of declining profits. He wanted to stop what he called “beating on the resource,” he said. “I thought, ‘We can do better than this. There has got to be a better way for the lobsters and the people.’ ”

This spring, Allen teamed up with Research Specialist Hauke Kite-Powell at the Marine Policy Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to search for that better way, using a grant from The Island Foundation, based in Marion, Mass.

Their study questioned “the wisdom of spending money to catch lobsters and then throwing them back.” Instead, they found that relaxing the minimum legal size requirement—but reducing the number of traps lobstermen could set—would:

  • improve the sustainability of the lobster fishery,
  • increase lobstermen’s incomes,
  • increase economic benefits to the regional economy from the lobster fishery, and,
  • have the added benefit of reducing the risk of entangling whales and other marine life in lobster trap ropes.

Size isn't as important

Kite-Powell and Allen used computer models, a series of equations that strives to capture both the biological and economic dynamics of lobster fishing. Models integrate a wide range of factors, from growth and reproduction rates of lobsters, to lobster fishing methods—number of lobster boats, lobster traps, and days at sea—and business costs and profits.

The researchers can vary one factor—number of traps, for example—and see the impacts on other factors.

“What we tried to do was determine the Holy Grail of fisheries management,” Kite-Powell said: The point where lobster fishermen and lobster stocks both thrived. Both model results and fish landing data suggest that the southern New England lobster fishery is now far from that point, he said.

The models indicated that by reducing the allowed number of traps, lobsters have more time to grow and reproduce before they are caught. This results in a dramatic increase in the average size of lobsters in the population—and in the catch. And, because each lobster weighs more, the total catch increases with fewer traps.

The researchers also found that the minimum size requirement—about one pound, or 8.2 to 8.9 centimeters (3.25 to 3.5 inches) along the back shell (depending on the fishing area in New England)—is less important to lobster conservation than the number of traps.

Fewer traps, less wasted time

>The combination of reducing trap numbes and relaxing minimum size requirements would save lobstermen time, effort, fuel, bait, and money because they could keep more of their catch, the researchers said. As much as 84 percent of the current catch is thrown back because the lobsters are too small, or because they are reproductive females.

Allen and Kite-Powell focused their study on just one lobster management area, from Nantucket, Mass., to Block Island, R.I., and both recognize that the model “is not the real world,” Kite-Powell said. Naturally, “both fishermen and managers will resist changes based on theory and modeling,” especially ones that require fishermen to assume all the risks, they said.

“We’re dealing with people emotionally tied to this resource and often with long histories of doing things a certain way,” said Allen, who has been working on education and public policy issues surrounding the lobster fishery since 1972. He has written for fisheries magazines and served on a number of fisheries management commissions in the North Atlantic region, including the U.S. Department of Commerce Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee.

Decades of education efforts have taught Allen “that change is slow, often one fisherman at a time.”

Not everyone believes the time is right for policy changes. Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, said that Maine's harvests—topping 70 million pounds in 2004, up from 63.6 million pounds in 2002—point to conservation successes in recent years.

"I think we've got a very sustainable fishery, just as we are doing it now," Bayer said in a July 13 article published by the Associated Press.

Originally published: July 7, 2006