How to Save Long Island Sound's Lobsters
Her reasoning is sound enough: large females are far more fecund than smaller ones. After discussing the causes of the ’99 die-off, Diane F. Cowan writes:
Years of intense harvesting have also hurt the lobster population in the Sound. You see, essentially too many very young lobsters were laying eggs in the Sound, resulting in what I call the "stay-at-home mom" phenomenon. Young, small egg-bearing lobsters tend to stay in the same area along the coast, while larger females travel greater distances and seed vast areas.
The problem is that intense harvesting prevents small lobsters from growing up. And because young females stay close to home, their eggs are fertilized by local male lobsters, and thus the gene pool deteriorates. Genetic diversity — enhanced by large lobsters — allows for a healthier lobster population and prevents it from being wiped out.
A law that sets a maximum size for female lobsters would help, she writes:
Maximum limits are important because a three-pound female lobster produces as many eggs as seven one-pound lobsters and a five-pound lobster produces as many eggs as 14 one-pound lobsters. And it's not just egg quantity: larger females produce healthier offspring and mate more often. Without strong federal laws enforcing size limits, we can't replenish the lobster population.
From what I know, however, a maximum size law would have little affect on Long Island Sound, because even when times were good, large lobsters were extremely rare in the Sound. I hasten to add that everything I know about lobsters in the Sound comes from talking to a lot of lobstermen and lobster scientists, in New York and Connecticut, and reading research papers, 15 or more years ago; I don’t have the direct experience that a lobster scientist like Cowan would. Nevertheless I’m confident think what I wrote in my book about the Sound’s lobsters was right:
In the Sound, lobsters are almost like livestock being raised for slaughter. A lobsterman on the Sound can haul a trap crammed with up to twenty undersized lobsters for every keeper. These “shorts” have gorged themselves on the bait, and since the lobsterman must by law toss them back, he is, in effect, feeding lobsters now so they will be big enough to keep later. But unlike the Atlantic’s lobsters, the Sound’s animals have virtually no chance once they reach legal size. Ninety percent are caught within a year of becoming legal, an efficiency which biologists say is unheard of elsewhere and which makes it that much more critical for the lobsters to breed before they reach legal size. For the lobstermen, the efficiency exacts a price: the typical Sound lobster weighs only a pound or a pound and a quarter. Among the rarer sights on the Sound is a lobster pot with a two- or a three-pounder inside.
In other words, there aren’t any big lobsters in the Sound, so why would a maximum size limit be effective? It wouldn’t be, unless it were accompanied by a law that increased the minimum size limit on females, to let them grow bigger. If what Cowan says about the relative fecundity of big females compared to small females is true, that might not be a bad idea.