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The Courier-Gazette, March 5, 2002

Scientists expect decline in lobster landings

by Daniel Dunkle

ROCKPORT—Fishermen in Maine can expect lobster landings to be down starting this year, according to some scientists who spoke Saturday at the Maine Fishermen's Forum.

However, a Friendship-based scientist had a different finding.

Bob Steneck of the University of Maine Darling Center and Rick Wahle of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences presented the results of their research on young lobsters. They predict that fishermen can expect to see a steady decline in landings in 2002, 2003 and 2004, with the lobster catch possibly rebounding in 2006.

Wahle based this prediction on the decline in young lobsters, called settlers, that he saw in his studies from 1994 to 2000.

After hatching from eggs, lobsters first float in the water and later, as they grow, settle to the bottom where they live in the rocks. Wahle's team took samples of the lobsters living in the rocks. His research found a decline in the number of settlers in the 1990s. However, a record number of settlers were found off the coast of Maine in 2001. Scientists are not sure why the numbers went from an all-time low in 2000 to an all-time high in 2001.

Steneck found the same trend in his samples of juvenile lobsters. He said there was a drastic decline in the number of settlers in 1995.

Steneck found what he called statistically significant declines in young lobsters in Lincoln County, off Monhegan Island and in Penobscot Bay from about 1997 to 2001. However, at Mount Desert Island, he did not see the same decline.

Lobsters that were juveniles at a time when the number of juveniles was in decline should reach maturity in 2002. As a result, if there were fewer young ones in the 1990s, there are likely to be fewer 5 to 9-year-old lobsters to be caught this year, the scientists reason.

In 2006, some of the lobsters that were part of a robust population of juveniles recorded in 2001 will reach maturity.

In answer to a question, both Steneck and Wahle said that the number of lobsters that actually settle can decline even while egg production is going strong.

Diane Cowan of The Lobster Conservancy, which has a lobster pound on Friendship Long Islan, had different findings. She said that while the young lobsters she studies in the intertidal zone fluctuate in number depending on the time of year, their numbers remain steady over the course of several years. There are more lobsters in the summer than in the winter, she found.

"I have no reason to be concerned about a decline in the future," she said.

Steneck argued that because her research was limited to the intertidal zone, her sample of lobsters was too small to make that argument. He noted that the intertidal zone is a stressful area and can only support a small number of young lobsters.

"That's maybe not the best place to look for trends,''he said. "It's not where I'd look for it."

"If there were a problem I'd expect to see it here," Cowan said.

Her research on the life cycle of lobsters has included injecting tags into lobster's walking legs so she can find the same lobster over and over again and monitor its growth.

Lew Incze of Bigelow Lab said the death rate for lobsters during the original stage of their development is 4 percent per day. Less than 1 percent of the original hatch actually settles to the bottom, he said, which is true of a number of organisms.

The annual forum was held Thursday through Saturday at the Samoset Resort, bringing together fishermen, scientists, politicians, journalists and business people with a stake in the commercial fishing industry.


©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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