By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
In four days of marathon meetings in Boston this week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) covered the status of many fish in these waters, including menhaden, horseshoe crabs, fluke and black sea bass. Lobster and the striped bass were at the top of the list, though.
Because of declining lobster stocks in this region, local fishermen can expect new management restrictions beginning in 2013. The ASMFC voted to curtail lobster fishing efforts by at least ten per cent but steered clear of a proposed moratorium. They are instructing states to accomplish this by either increasing minimum sizes, changing the maximum size or imposing a fishing season.
In action Wednesday, the commission agreed to strict new benchmarks for menhaden, designed to bring back the population of a fish that figures in the diets of larger fish. About three-quarters of the Atlantic menhaden catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters, but their declining numbers have harmed other species all the way up the coast, according to the Pew Environmental Group, which pushed for the change. Menhaden have been harvested heavily for use in fish meal and oil.
Fisheries managers have known for a while that lobster stocks from Cape Cod to the waters off Virginia are in serious trouble. More than a year ago, a scientific technical committee reported stocks were in such a bad state that fisheries managers should consider a full five-year moratorium. This was met with strong opposition by the industry.
The decline in lobster is blamed more on changing environmental conditions than on fishing, though it is known that fishing exacerbates the problem. A study done in Massachusetts puts much of the blame on warming waters. They reported lobsters in warmer waters are more vulnerable to disease and thus are not bearing as many young. Scientists warned that without any immediate action the stock was on the verge of commercial collapse.
Lobster stocks north of Cape Cod are in a significantly better state.
Following the ASMFC decision on Monday, each of the member states, which includes Massachusetts, will come up with a management plan specific to their area to achieve the necessary cuts.
Fishing effort reductions could include bringing about an increase in the minimum carapace size and or include the imposition of a fishing season, according to Toni Kerns, a lobster resource coordinator. She said cutting fishing efforts by establishing further trap limits for this area was not in the decision.
At present Martha’s Vineyard and area lobstermen have no season and they can fish year-round, though most of them do their fishing in the summer. Local commercial fishermen are restricted to catching lobsters with a carapace length between under 3 3/8 and 5 1/4 inches. There are already strict restrictions on the harvesting of female egg-bearing lobsters. They also have a trap limit.
Meeting in conference at the Langham Hotel in Boston, the members of the ASMFC striped bass board also postponed taking any restrictive action to protect striped bass until another assessment is completed in two years. The board discussed at length the increased cases of illegal harvesting of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay and Virginia waters. Last winter and well into this spring, with increased enforcement, there were a number of large cases of poaching striped bass in unmarked gillnets. Tons of fish were recovered.
Kate Taylor, a striped bass coordinator with the ASMFC, said the board heard a report by Gary Nelson, chairman of the stock assessment committee of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. He said there continues to be no evidence that the stocks are being overfished, but added there is evidence the population has declined.
Ms. Taylor said board members were encouraged by four of the six juvenile indexes released this fall. The indexes reflect favorable recruitment of young fish this year in Chesapeake. The new reports counter a trend in the last several years when the young of the year indices were low.
She said the board will meet again in February.