June 2, 2001
Maine and the Lobster Catch
he Lobster Institute at the University of Maine at Orono maintains a Web site called the Lobster Cam, which shows the actual interior of a working lobster trap 60 feet off the coast of Maine. This is as close as most of us will ever come to fishing for Maine lobsters. The lobster fishery in that state is essentially becoming a closed resource. In some of its zones, the number of new fishing entrants is strictly limited. That sounds stringent, but it is one thing that has helped cause the lobster catch — and thus, presumably, the number of lobsters — to rise to unheard-of levels in Maine, even as fishing for other species has fallen on very hard times.
To a certain extent, the prosperity of Maine lobstermen — who harvested 56.7 million pounds last year, triple the catch in the mid-1980's — is an example of sound conservation of a limited resource. Each lobsterman is allowed only 800 traps, and during the summer lifting traps on Sunday is illegal. The slot limit for lobsters, which prohibits the taking of lobsters under and over certain sizes, is strictly regulated, as is the rule against taking egg-bearing females and females whose tails have been notched with a V, which indicates that they were bearing eggs the last time they were trapped.
These limits are designed to protect the breeding population, and they add a further layer of discrimination to what was already, by its nature, a fairly discriminating industry. A regulation lobster trap is designed to allow immature lobsters to escape — it may in fact serve as a feeding station for them — and there is practically no bycatch, unlike net-based forms of fishing. Still, such remarkable prosperity in one sector of a generally decimated fishing industry makes many people nervous. It is hard to tell whether the record lobster catch, which was high throughout the 90's, is due mainly to good management or to an increasing, and worrying, encroachment on habitat and the ability of the lobster population to reproduce itself.
In a report on lobster habitat written for the Lobster Institute three years ago, the authors noted several worrying trends. Lobsters are decreasing in size, and many of them are being caught before they reach sexual maturity. The authors conclude, "we are placing ever more reliance on a shrinking size range, which increases the competition for particular environments." Maine's Department of Marine Resources has begun a pilot program using on- board electronic logbooks that will help plot the location, number and size of lobsters being caught. Such information will help researchers tell whether the current lobster feast will last or whether the edge of lobster famine is lurking in the near future.