With the American lobster in short supply in Vineyard waters, the state and federal governments are in the early stages of considering new minimum sizes and catch limits. Hearings are planned for later this summer. It is a fishing crisis of large scale.

Troubles extend from Nantucket to the waters of Rhode Island and on to Connecticut, where lobster fishermen are struggling and there is talk it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Bruce Estrella, a fisheries expert with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said yesterday: "I haven't seen such a decline like this in the 21 years I have worked with lobsters." Mr. Estrella leads the coastal lobster investigations project for the state.

Overfishing the resource is the problem. While lobsters seem to be doing well in waters north of Cape Cod all the way to Maine, there is just too much fishing effort in these waters. Menemsha lobstermen have complained about intense effort for years, and now it is at its worst.

Mike Syslo, director of the state lobster hatchery in Oak Bluffs, said this week the decline in lobsters has been years in the making. The trend reflects a need for a change in management, a need to increase minimum sizes and limit fishing effort. "Without doubt, it is overfishing. Everyone can agree to that, but how you solve the problem, how you reduce the effort and increase recruitment is the big issue," Mr. Syslo said.

"It's like sucking wind," said Emmett Carroll, a Menemsha lobsterman. "I had my worst day ever. I got five lobsters for 45 pots. That was a month ago," he said. "I spoke to a friend of mine last year. He said we were in the same place they were three years ago. If we knew what we were doing, we would sell our boats and our licenses quick."

At stake is a multi-million dollar industry: Clearly, lobsters are the number one money maker for fishermen, fish markets and restaurateurs. In 1998, Massachusetts lobstermen landed 13 million pounds of lobsters. The economic value of those lobsters was estimated at $47 million. Lobsters are the number one seafood on the Vineyard and for the Cape.

Fortunately for the consumer, there is no shortage of lobsters in the fish markets, and there will be no shortage this summer. Lobsters come to the Island in a variety of ways, not just from local fishermen. Louis Larsen, owner of the Net Result, a fish market in Vineyard Haven, said: "I know of some lobstermen who aren't going out, it is so bad. I know an offshore boat, the owner is taking two weeks off - he can't afford the bait, let alone the fuel, it is so bad."

Mr. Larsen said: "We don't ship lobsters off-Island now. We import them because we don't get enough." Lobsters can come from as far away as Canada. There are portions of Maine where the lobster fishery is experiencing a significant comeback, partly because of a different management regime.

A seasonal biological factor is adding to this year's troubles. This is the time of year when lobsters shed their shells and typically are difficult to catch. William Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said: "This time of year is always slow. I got off the phone with a New Bedford fisherman, he said they are shedding all the way down to Connecticut and Long Island." Mr. Adler said he doesn't believe lobsters are seriously in trouble as a resource. He said water temperature is a big factor in the availability of lobsters in these waters. "There wasn't a big spring," Mr. Adler said. "I don't think it is in crisis mode at this point. If you call me in September and nothing has happened, then that is different."

Jim Fair, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said: "The whole lobster fishery is driven by temperature. How they feed, how they reproduce. Temperature is the driving factor." But he said there is no doubt that lobsters are being overfished in these waters. "We have drafted a plan, prepared by fishermen in the area for Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. That plan is being forwarded to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and will be reviewed by the technical committee. The board will look at it in the next month."

Mr. Fair said fisheries managers are looking to increase the minimum carapace length of the lobster and also come up with a plan that would cut the amount of gear being used in these waters.

Fisheries managers report there may be disagreement among lobstermen over whether the lobster resource is in crisis, but there is no disagreement that the amount of fishing effort in these waters is excessive.

Mr. Adler concurred on the issue of effort. He said more fishermen and gear than ever are fishing for the limited number of lobsters.

Mr. Carroll said: "There are no lobsters, no nothing, except for a very few places. We are inundated with rules. You can't have single traps outside of the three mile limit. Half of the fishermen from Menemsha fish with single traps, so that means all those traps have to be inside the three-mile limit. The inside is overburdened with traps. There might be as many lobsters out there as last year, but there are twice the number of pots."

Mr. Carroll has his own ideas why the lobsters are in trouble. He said striped bass are in recovery and he believes they are feeding on the lobsters. He and others are also concerned that a shell disease that has been spreading up the coast has had a harmful impact on the lobsters. Mr. Estrella said the reason for the lobster decline in these waters is overfishing, not striped bass or shell disease.

"Shell disease is a commonly occurring bacteria that lives in the sediments and it can be found on all lobsters. Only under certain conditions do they erode the shell. Whenever we have a disease problem with lobsters, we find them dead in lobster pots. We haven't seen any dead lobsters in traps that we are monitoring. We feel the cause of the decline is overfishing."

Mr. Syslo said one problem with current management strategies is that 90 per cent of the female lobsters in the water are harvested before they've had a chance to reproduce. If there are more female lobsters with eggs in the wild, recruitment would be better. Raising the minimum carapace size has been a hot political issue for years. Just raising it 1/32 of an inch can cause economic hardship for the lobstermen fishing now. Mr. Syslo said he would like to see the minimum size raised to 3 5/16 inches. "I would like to see a slow increase," Mr. Syslo said.

According to a state 1998 report: "Regulations promulgated by the New England Fishery Management Council in cooperation with the major lobster harvesting states of the Atlantic Coast, declared 1990 the 'off-year' of a five-year program to increase the minimum size from 3 3/16 inches in 1987 to 3 5/16 inches by January of 1992, through four 1/32-inch increases. The program was suspended at the end of 1990 and the planned increases in 1991 and 1992 were delayed pending a study."

Raising the minimum size by 1/8 inch above the current 3 1/4 inch carapace length would cause additional difficulty for fishermen in the first couple of years, but the long-term economic impact would be so significant as to be worth it.

Mr. Estrella is a strong advocate of increasing the minimum size. He said improving a fishery has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world. He pointed to the Australian rock lobster fishery and the Florida spiny lobster fishery as examples. "In both of these cases, significant improvements were made in the management, both through effort reduction and increasing minimum size. When you do it right you are going to lower fishing mortality, you leave lobsters in the water longer. You allow them to grow to a larger size, you get a better yield, and the larger females produce more eggs."

Mr. Carroll is a delegate to the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. He disagrees with state officials over how small the female egg producers are in this area of the Cape. He said he regularly tosses female lobsters back into the ocean with a carapace length of three inches, and they have eggs on them.

At the Massachusetts lobster hatchery in Oak Bluffs, Mr. Syslo is engaged in the second year of studying the reproductive life of a female lobster.

Mr. Syslo said he wonders how Menemsha lobstermen can make it unless something is done. "The cost of bait, the cost of boat maintenance and the cost of everything has risen while the price for lobsters is relatively stable," Mr. Syslo said. Vineyard lobstermen have to adapt to make up the difference. "For years we predicted this would happen. Now it is happening."