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Crustacean frustrations

Fisheries regulators this week will weigh the need for new restrictions on lobster catches in the southern New England coastal area in the wake of steep drops in lobster populations that many scientists attribute to warming ocean waters.

Some New England fishermen, however, dispute the assessment by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, arguing that the situation is not as dire as the regulators fear.

Nevertheless, the commission’s American Lobster Board on Thursday will examine measures outlined by its technical committee that could boost lobster egg production by 20 to 60 percent. The measures include increasing the legal minimum size for caught lobsters and decreasing the maximum size.

According to the commission’s data, the abundance of lobsters in the coastal area of southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut peaked in 1997 and suffered declines through 2013, when the lobster population stood at about one-fifth of its record numbers during the mid-1990s.

Robert Glenn, an aquatic biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and a member of the lobster board’s technical committee, told AMI Newswire that the lobsters’ plight in that region was bleak.

“The population is really struggling and is in a great degree of decline,” said Glenn, adding that the species along that part of the coast was facing environmental stress from warm waters and continuing fishing pressures.

He said this conclusion represented the consensus of the lobster technical committee. “Our assessment was put out to peer review, and they concurred with our results.”

Asked if the population declines could be attributed to water pollution rather than warming oceans, he said that pollution issues would lead to isolated problems in different areas, not broad declines seen recently in open ocean areas that are relatively pristine.

“I don’t think water pollution is the smoking gun,” Glenn said.

According to current modeling, even if carbon emissions were cut to zero, the Earth would continue to warm for some time, he said, adding that a long-term fix for the lobster population in southern New England will be a challenge for fisheries managers.

“Right now, the ocean is not a stable environment,” Glenn said, and its inhabitants are having to deal with large-scale changes over the span of a decade.

Although the southern New England area has become less hospitable to lobsters, fisheries further north in Georges Bank – between Cape Code and Nova Scotia – and the Gulf of Maine continue to see abundant populations, he said, so consumers may not be noticing the lobster declines further south.

Greg Mataronas, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, told AMI Newswire that his members are nervous about what steps the commission will take. In the area where he fishes – the ocean waters between the Rhode Island-Connecticut border and Chatham, Mass. – lobster fishermen have already imposed trap restrictions on themselves, he  said.

“We’re firmly against increasing the minimum size,” Mataronas said, adding that smaller lobsters produce fewer eggs, which are not as viable as eggs from the larger lobsters.

Reducing the maximum size for legal lobster catches, however, may make sense because those larger lobsters will continue producing eggs into the future, thereby helping to increase the overall population.

Asked about the size of his lobster catches, Mataronas said: “It’s been better and better every year since 2012.”

He also expressed some uncertainty about scientists’ view that warming waters were an overriding factor in the challenges facing the lobster population. There’s no doubt that waters have warmed at certain times of the year, hesaid, but temperature data have been sketchy, and water temperatures can vary dramatically at different levels. The water might be 68 degrees at the surface, while 100 feet below the surface it could be 55, he said.

Mataronas also pointed to increased predation by fish such as the black sea bass, which he said may also be a factor affecting the lobster stocks.

Glenn acknowledged that fishermen have been reporting better lobster catch rates in recent years. But he explained that over the past decade, 60 to 70 percent of fishermen who targeted lobsters in southern New England have gotten out of the business as a result of the overall declines.

“Because so many guys got out of the business, the people who remain experience fairly decent catch rates,” Glenn said, although the total commercial catch has been in decline.

The American Lobster Board signaled in May that, although it would not pursue a moratorium in the southern New England region, it did want to investigate strategies to cut lobster mortality and increase egg productions. The board at that time listed tools such as season closings, area closings, reductions in the number of traps and changes in the legal size requirements for caught lobsters.