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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 11, 2023 and The Weekly Packet, May 11, 2023
Commission adopts new lobster rules to avoid overfishing
A 35% decline in recruit stock would trigger gauge changes

by Jack Beaudoin

The American Lobster Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has approved new measures that could be used to provide additional protections to spawning lobsters. Addendum XXVII establishes a trigger mechanism that would automatically put into place annual gauge and escape vent sizes to increase the proportion of the population of lobsters that are “able to reproduce before being harvested, and to enhance stock resiliency by protecting larger lobsters of both sexes,” the board reported in a press release following its vote.

The vote on adoption came at the ASMFC’s 2023 Spring Meeting on May 2 in Arlington, Va.

According to Caitlin Starks, Senior Fishery Management Plan Coordinator at ASMFC, if lobster surveys register a decline in “recruit” stock of 35 percent or more from a reference level (equal to the three-year average from 2016 to 2018), a multi-year series of incremental changes to gauge and vent size will be initiated in the following fishing year.

Currently, the minimum gauge size for a lobster in Maine is 3-1/4 inches. This means that a lobster must be at least 3-1/4 inches from eye socket to edge of the carapace at the tail in order to be kept. Lobsters that are smaller than this size must be thrown back into the ocean.

The first change, coming in the spring following the year in which the trigger is reached, increases the minimum gauge size to 3-5/16 inches, up 1/16th inch. The next year’s (Year 3) change would increase that to 3-3/8, representing another 1/16th inch increase. In Year 4, required escape vents would increase in size as well.

Patrice McCarron, policy director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said her group opposed Addendum XXVII because it would create a size disparity with lobsters caught by Canadian fishermen and exported to the United States.

“The MLA recommended that ASMFC conduct an economic study before considering this management option,” McCarron said. While the commission moved ahead without the study, “ASMFC has committed to engage with Canada on importation of lobsters between the two countries to ensure market stability and equity for U.S. lobstermen.”

Dispelling rumors

Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher, a voting member of the board, issued a statement the following day to address confusion over the timing and sequenced implementation of the changes.

“I have heard a lot of misinformation regarding the outcome of the Addendum,” Keliher wrote. “I want to emphasize that a gauge size change won’t happen this year. The ASMFC Lobster Management Board will review the data each October, and if a 35% decline is observed, the change would not take place until June of the following year.”

After nearly two decades or increased landings, fisheries managers have been watching the lobster biomass with concerns about sustainability. “In Maine alone, landings have increased from 57 million pounds in 2000 to a record high of 132.6 million pounds in 2016,” the ASMFC reported.

Maine landings have declined from the 2016 record over the past three years. In 2020, still in the midst of the pandemic, 97.9 million pounds were landed. They rebounded moderately in 2021, when lobstermen landed 110.6 million pounds, but fell off again in 2022 with 97.9 million pounds.

But beginning in 2012, managers and researchers have seen declines in lobster recruit abundance (71-80mm, or 2.78-3.14 inches, the size of juvenile lobsters surveyed) from the spring and fall trawl surveys, and ventless trap surveys. “These surveys, which measure trends in the abundance of juvenile lobsters, can be used to track populations and potentially forecast future landings,” the ASMFC stated. “Persistent low settlement could foreshadow declines in recruitment and landings.”

Both Keliher and McCarron said that by creating uniform gauge standards across the three lobster management areas (LMAs) in, or bordering, the Gulf of Maine, Addendum XXVII represented a shared burden for lobstermen throughout northern New England.

LMA 1 will increase its minimum gauge, LMA 3 will reduce its maximum gauge and the Outer Cape area will finally have a maximum gauge and more restrictive v-notch definition in place,” McCarron said.

Seeking a balance

In discussions with Maine lobstermen prior to the board’s vote, Keliher reported that opinions seemed to fall in the middle of two extremes.

“I heard clearly at the zone meetings and at the Lobster Advisory Council that change was not looked at positively, but neither was stock collapse,” he wrote. “Most of those conversations really focused in on a higher trigger but certainly the idea of a 45% trigger and understandings that landings would likely drop to around 60 million pounds before a trigger was pulled was concerning, so the advice to me seemed to focus in on the mid thirty range.”

A spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources later explained that larger percentages correlated with smaller landings, and that a majority of the industry agreed that landings around 60 million pounds were in no one’s interests.

For its part, the ASMFC welcomed the trigger approach because it creates a more nimble management response to maintaining healthy stocks. Starks said that, previously, management efforts required a long period of research, deliberation and negotiation that could last between six months and several years.

“The trigger mechanism puts something in place so that when the Board observes concerning levels of decline in recruit abundance, it does not have to spend that amount of time making a decision about what measures to implement in response,” she explained. “The work of developing options and determining the appropriate management response to such declines was done on the front end, so that action will happen quickly when declines are observed.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was formed by the 15 Atlantic coastal states in 1942 for the promotion and protection of coastal fishery resources.