The lobster fishery in the waters around Martha's Vineyard has collapsed. Today a new minimum size for lobsters goes into effect. The increase, a tiny fraction of an inch, it is being imposed in an effort to protect juvenile lobsters. Another increase will take place on July 1, but many fisheries experts concede these steps are too late, the horse is already out of the barn.
The problem is a distinctly local one. Lobsters are plentiful in Canada, Maine and along the northern shoreline of Massachusetts. Lobsters are plentiful north of the Cape Cod Canal. There is no shortage of lobsters in local fish markets. But from Connecticut, Rhode Island and all of Southern Massachusetts, fishermen have had record low landings.
State officials earlier this year considered putting into place a full commercial moratorium on lobster fishing in this area to begin in July. But that idea was abandoned after those in the industry cried foul, charging it would ruin the lobstermen.
Lobster minimum sizes are based on the carapace length. Today, the state raised the minimum size to 3 11/32 inches, an increase of 1/32 of an inch. The state will raise the minimum size in this area, also known as Area II, to 3 3/8 inches on July 1. The increase keeps Massachusetts in compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The state Marine Fisheries Commission decided on the increase at their March 6 meeting after hearing overwhelming concern about the fishery.
"It is a mess," said Bill Adler, the president of the Massachusetts Lobster Association. "Catch reports are down," he said. "Everyone agrees it isn't just the fishermen." He said it is widely known that a rise in shellfish disease and warmer waters have had a significant impact. The decline in Connecticut is being blamed on the use of pesticides, although that hasn't been definitively proven.
The Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association advocates for the interests of commercial lobstermen. Mr. Adler is also a member of the state fisheries commission. He said he wants to see the government come up with a better plan than just telling the fishermen to stop. "They want to shoot the fishermen dead. Yes, the fishermen may have fished too much. Yes, they have to do something. My question, hanging in the air, is what are government agencies going to do to share the burden?"
"The fishery is in a crisis," Mr. Adler said.
Lobstermen in Area II landed four million pounds in 2000. That number dropped by half in 2001. The state has yet to release numbers for last year, but Mr. Adler believes it was down again.
Dan McKiernan, acting deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said: "If we do nothing, this decline in the lobster population will result in businesses failing. Some people are trying to find a way to keep the lobster fishery viable. They are talking about something like transferable quotas."
The impact of the resource's decline is being felt by local lobstermen. The number of lobstermen who fish from the Vineyard is down, and it will continue to drop.
Lobsters in northern Massachusetts and Maine are doing well. Mr. McKiernan said the waters of Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts are the southernmost range for the American lobster. "The Buzzards Bay fishery started disappearing three or four years ago. It is a remnant of what it used to be. Maine has huge landings every year. I think as the stocks get stressed, they are more likely to fail in the margins of the range, where the water temperatures are warmer.
"This is very serious. The real challenge is how do you manage the remnants of the fishery to protect what is left? It is probably politically and economically unpalatable to shut down the fishery," said Mr. McKiernan.
Last month there was talk of regulating recreational lobster fishermen in these waters. Recreational fishermen are limited to fishing 10 pots, while the commercial fishermen are limited to 800. There are 12,000 recreational lobstermen in the state. Objections were strong across the state, though Mr. McKiernan said that it is likely the idea will be brought back for discussion for the 2004 season. A whole range of ideas about limiting the number of pots will be brought up for discussion for the 2004 season.
There has also been talk of adopting a trap limit. "If every fishermen fished the maximum number of traps allowed, we would 1.25 million traps out there. Right now, by estimates we think they are fishing 500,000 pots," Mr. McKiernan said.
Managers are concerned about the latent effort. "There is a lot of controversy among lobstermen on how to manage the fishery. There is talk of a federal buyout, disaster relief. Some of the organized fishermen are talking to legislators," Mr. McKiernan said.
It is mostly a local issue. "Don't stop eating lobsters," Mr. Adler said. "This is probably 15 per cent of the total Massachusetts catch. The area north is a major fishery," he said. The Vineyard gets most of the lobsters from other places, from as far north as the Prince Edward Islands.
Mr. Adler said he spoke out against the state proposal to implement a lobster fishing moratorium for these waters to begin in July. "I was adamantly opposed to a closure of that magnitude. It kills the guys, kills the fishermen. In the middle of the summer? How do these fishermen get ready for that?" Mr. Adler said.
"When you admit that the main reason for the decline is not fishing pressure, that it is environmental factors, what good does a moratorium do?" Mr. Adler said. "Something is killing off the lobsters. So why put more of a burden on the fishermen?"