The Working Waterfront

New lobster size rules considered

Federal commission looking at larger minimums

Stephen Rappaport
Posted 2022-05-25
Last Modified 2022-05-25

It never rains but it pours.

That’s the way New England lobstermen already grappling with the May 1 deadline to comply with new rules aimed at protecting right whales must be feeling. The latest challenge is that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has put changing the gauge—the measure of the minimum and maximum carapace lengths for legal-sized lobsters—back on the table.

In January, the commission’s lobster management board renewed discussions of a modification of the fishery management plan that controls lobster fishing in waters between Virginia and the Canadian border. Consideration of an addendum began in 2017 but was sidetracked as the commission focused on right whale issues.

There are seven lobster conservation management areas between Virginia and the Canadian border, each with its own distinct rules governing the gauge, the requirement to clip a “V-notch” in the tail fins of egg-bearing female lobsters and throw back marked females with or without eggs, the maximum number of traps allowed each lobsterman, and other management measures.

The proposed changes are aimed at conserving a spawning stock biomass—the number of lobsters capable of reproducing…

Area 1 includes the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to the Canadian border out to about 50 miles offshore. Area 3 covers the offshore waters from Virginia to the to the boundary with Area 1 in the Gulf of Maine. About 93 percent of all U.S. lobster landings come from the combined Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank lobster stock found in Area 1 and the Gulf of Maine segment of Area 3. Maine lobstermen catch the vast majority of those lobsters—last year nearly 109 million pounds worth some $731 million.

Kathleen Reardon, chief lobster scientist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources and chairwoman of the ASMFC lobster board’s technical committee, said the proposed changes are aimed at conserving a spawning stock biomass—the number of lobsters capable of reproducing—sufficient to sustain an approximately 100-million-pound fishery in Areas 1 and 3.

Over the past several years, she said, measures scientists use to determine the health of the lobster stock—settlement of juveniles on the ocean floor, fall and spring trawl surveys and the survey of “ventless” traps from which undersized lobsters can’t escape—all indicate the potential for a decline in the lobster population and landings.

Stonington lobsterman Hilton Turner, president of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, is skeptical of the data. He said the ventless traps he hauled for the last DMR survey were “stuffed” with undersized lobsters. After the traps had been on the bottom just 24 hours, “there were 30 shorts (undersized lobsters) in one and ten to 15 in the other two.”

Currently, the minimum legal carapace length for lobsters in Area 1 is 3 ¼ inches, the maximum is 5 inches. In Area 3, the minimum is 3 17/32 inches, the maximum 6 ¾ inches. The ASMFC is considering two gauge change options, and the possible survey results that might trigger them.

Option 1 would increase the minimum gauge in Area 1 to 3 5/16 inches with no gauge change in Area 3. Option 2 would increase the minimum gauge in Area 1 to 3 3/8 inches and decrease the maximum gauge in Area 3 by three-quarters of an inch to 6 inches.
Increasing the Area 3 maximum gauge would protect the relatively few large broodstock lobsters that bear millions of eggs.

But, Reardon said, increasing the minimum gauge in Area 1 where lobsters are increasingly starting to bear eggs at a smaller size, “would have the maximum biological impact” on the stock. In the short term, she said, lobstermen might land fewer, but heavier, lobsters.

Turner sees any gauge changes as a matter of fairness.

“Don’t just raise Maine,” he said. “I think it [the gauge] should be the same everywhere. We can’t sell a 6-pound lobster in Maine, but they can in Rhode Island,” whose lobstermen fish in waters where the maximum gauge is 6 ¾ inches compared with 5 inches in Maine.

“It’s really too soon to say on the ASMFC stuff,” Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said in mid-April, but it’s not too early for lobstermen to be concerned.

“When I attended the ASMFC lobster board meeting when they were voting to move the proposal forward,” McCarron said, “my comment was that the timing of the draft addendum is extremely difficult for the lobster industry and there is potential that changes resulting from future rounds of whale regulations may actually address ASMFC’s concerns.”