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The Courier-Gazette
February 13, 2001

Lobster Conservancy given grant for planning

by Laurie Schreiber

FRIENDSHIIP—The nonprofit Lobster Conservancy has received a $5,000 planning grant from the Maine Community Foundation.

The grant reflects the conservancy's continued growth since it was founded in 1996. Maine Community Foundation has provided support since that time in the conservancy's scientific program.

The conservancy was started by Diane Cowan as an all-volunteer outfit to monitor juvenile lobster abundance in the intertidal zone in the Gulf of Maine. Cowan began studying one site in particular, off Orrs Island in Casco Bay, in 1993.

"We've been growing exponentially," said executive director Sara Ellis, who was the conservancy's first paid staff member, hired in 1999. "Now we need to think about bringing in more staff and charting the future."

The organization's overall mission is scientific and educational, aimed at increasing knowledge about the lobster biomass with an eye toward preserving the resource and the fishery. More than 60 volunteers monitor the abundance and distribution of juveniles monthly at 25 sites, from Isle au Haut in Penobscot Bay to Manomet Point in Massachusetts. They plan to expand to Winter Harbor this year.

The data allows them to look for changes by comparing different sites in the same year and the same sites over a number of years. Intertidal nurseries are spread along the coast, and the presence of juveniles close to shore, in this mainstay of fisheries, has serious implications with regard to pollution and the general degradation of the environment, Ellis said.

At the same time, the conservancy's data contradicts recent findings by a team of University of Maine and the Bigelow Laboratory scientists that show declines of larval and juvenile lobsters.

"We haven't seen a decline," Ellis said.

The conservancy monitors monthly, and likely has better data and a more complete picture of larval settlement, she said.

"An incredibly wide variety" of volunteers—from lobster fishermen and their families to high school and college students, from retirees to software engineers—sample sites selected by the conservancy, with the aid of local input.

"They're doing hands-on research and learning about the marine environment, so they become stewards of what's happening in their own back yard," she said.

The spots are usually a 20-meter straight stretch, divided into 1-meter grids. The Massachusetts sites were added on just last year, and have proved to be bountiful nurseries.

The sites are selected using both lobster- and human-friendly criteria. Appropriate nursery habitat is shallow and sloping, with plenty. of decent-size rocks where the young lobsters like to burrow. The substrate under the rocks is turning out to be important; it must be able to retain moisture when the tide goes out. At the same time, the rocks must be small enough for the volunteers to lift up.

The Conservancy's top priority is to continue the volunteer program, Ellis said.

"The volunteer network is a cost-effective, early-warning, system that makes it possible for regulators and lobstermen to take corrective measures should nursery stocks show a downward population trend in this economically important fishery," Ellis wrote in the granit application. The network and the attention it has drawn, she says, also helps "to change the public's attitude toward resource management from passive and uninformed to caring and well-informed."

The organization also will look into the best utilization of a $500,000 lobster pound on Friendship, Long Island that was recently donated to them.

"We would like to develop this lobster pound as a research center to address vital questions about lobster reproductive biology," Ellis wrote. We would also like to expand our volunteer monitoring to the entire rim of the Gulf of Maine, from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, including offshore on lobsterboats, and increase our data's value to regulators. We also believe that (the conservancy) has a role to play in other areas, such as providing a lobster curriculum to Gulf of Maine schools, advocating for environmental regulations that protect critical lobster nursery habitat, and making more effective use of the media to increase public understanding of lobster biology and conservation issues."


©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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