Monday, March 06, 2006

How to Save Long Island Sound's Lobsters

A scientist with an organization called the Lobster Conservancy, in Maine, argued in the Times Long Island section over the weekend that to prevent a repeat of Long Island Sound’s 1999 lobster die-off, we need a federal law that prevents lobster fishermen from keeping really big females.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember visiting a lobster pound while vacationing in Maine. The lobsterman explained the importance of keeping breeding females in the wild. I believe that you had to throw back a female with eggs but would cut a notch in its tail before doing so. If the lobster were caught again, eggs or not, it was supposed to be thrown back. Possession of a lobster with a notched tale was a crime, I think. Are the same rules being applied in Long Island Sound?

9:53 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

I don't think so ... the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation says only New Hampshire, Maine, and Mass have the requirement to (1) notch egg-bearing females and throw back and (2) never harvest v-notched females. (3) The minimum size is about 3-1/4 inches and (4) the maximum is 5 inches carapace length.

Connecticut and LI only seem to have the minimum length regulations (3).

I grew up in the 60's and 70's around Clinton, CT and most of the lobsters were "shorts" also called "twins," being just over the limit below which you threw back the "culls." I'm dating myself here but twins were two for a dollar and the larger ones were a buck each unless they were soft-shell "shedders," 50 cents.

LI Sound could at least adopt a measure to regulate capture of egg bearing females, in my opinion. The requirement for v-notching isn't that bad, either.

If you really want to help the lobster population come back, kill as many stripers (rockfish) as you can! They are voracious eaters.

However, the stripers and egg-bearing lobster stuff doesn't have a thing to do with lobster shell disease, which relates to ocean chemistry and maybe some kind of fungus or bacteria. Scientists are worried that shell disease, which resembles burn marks on the lobster, could spread up into the Gulf of Maine, as the waters warm. /Sam

12:14 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, hold on now! Let's not wage war on stripers to protect the lobsters! ;)

Establishing a "range" limit - a minimum and maximum - is often best for fisheries. Enforcement of such limits has, in the past, helped flounder and stripers and many studies suggest this is the most sensible management approach, though the relative "complexity," if you can call it that, of such regulation often turns off the recreational fisherman and the watermen.

Regardless, ss you suggest, the Sounds needs specific regulations which target their female breeding sizes. What are the official take rules presently?

2:51 PM  
Blogger Tom Andersen said...

Lobsters landed in Connecticut have to have a carapace length of at least 3.28 inches. That's going up to 3.31 inches on July 1. The state has asked the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to increase it further, to 3.375 inches. I assume that the rules are the same in New York's waters. I looked quickly online to find the regs but couldn't, so my source is the Connecticut Post.

4:27 PM  

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