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Bangor Daily News, Monday March 4, 2002

Scientists aid lobstermen in predicting fishery's future

By Sharon Kiley Mack
of the News Staff

ROCKPORT—For the first time, scientists and lobstermen are sharing data and working hand in hand to be able to predict the future of the Maine's lobster population.

From Maine to Rhode Island, scientists are sampling lobsters of all ages at 60 different locations, hoping to create a bank of research that can be used to establish a lobster management plan.

"It's jumping outside the box," said Carl Wilson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources at Saturday's wrap-up session of the three-day 2002 Maine Fishermen's Forum.

For 100 years, the average lobster haul in Maine was about 20 million pounds, said Wilson. "That doubled last year to 50 million pounds. There is not a fisherman here who believes they will see another 50 million year in their lifetime."

And the answer to the question "What do you think this year's haul will be?" is "We don't know."

Since 1994, Wilson said, there has been a steady downturn in the lobster harvest. Last year, however, lobster catches in midcoast Maine "went off the charts," a fluke the scientists do not expect to continue.

By studying the effects of the environment and oceanography on lobster settlements and mortality however, scientists hope they will be able to determine what factors negatively affect the lobster population. With a predicted decrease of 30 percent to 40 percent in the lobster haul over the next few years, prediction may mean survival for the industry.

"This is a concerted effort by scientists in Maine to study and collect data on lobsters from the cradle to the grave, so to speak," said Wilson. "This type of study has never been done before in the Northeast. It is multidisciplinary and uses a variety of methods." Key to its success, said Wilson, is that lobster fishermen buy into and support decisions made based on the research."

At Saturday's forum, several scientists explained their individual areas of expertise: Some are studying lobster larvae, others catching and banding juvenile lobsters, while still others are categorizing 2- to 4 year-olds in lobster settlements.

Meshing the information collected by the various scientists will allow for a more accurate picture of the lobster population and mortality rate. Already the scientists said they are getting a little picture of just what's happening out there under Maine's waters.

Scientists from the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship and the Darling Marine Center of the University of Maine are linking their research and sharing information with other experts up and down the Northeast coast.

The result, they said Saturday is the beginning of a comprehensive body of research on the lobster population. Studying the settlement areas where lobsters gather equates to studying lobsters about seven years prior to harvest, those that are between 2 and 4 years old, said Dr. Robert Steneck of the University of Maine Darling Center.

"Because the settlement declined in 1995, then we can expect the landings to decline in 2003," he suggested. Steneck, who studies the tiny larvae stage of lobsters, said that population has shown asignificant decline in the Penobscot Bay and Pemaquid areas. "It is vital that we understand the settlement mortality," said Steneck.

Some scientists don't agree there will be a large decline.

After eight years of catching juvenile lobsters along the Maine coast, Diane Cowan of the Lobster Conservatory said, "Since 1993, I have seen little ups and downs, but I have no reason to believe there will be a major decline." Cowan said that for three days prior to the forum she was sampling her catches at Harpswell and Friendship.

"For the first time since 1993, we've found a huge amount of lobsters of this size for this time of year," she said.

"How does my research link to the lobster fisheries? I have no idea," she admitted. But Cowan's studies are similar to sampling being done in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Eventually, sharing and analyzing those data may provide an answer.

The biggest challenge before the scientists, they said, was relating what outside factors affect the larvae and juvenile population, not the egg-bearing females.

"There are a million eggers in Lincoln County where there were 4 million landings," said Richard Wahle of the Bigelow Lab. The consensus was that there are plenty of "eggers" in the water, so whatever is affecting the survival rate must be environmental. "The eggers are doing fine. After all the population of lobsters has doubled in the last decade. Today we have enough eggers."

"In the year 2000, we had the worst settlement figures ever," said Lew Incze of Bigelow Lab. "In 2001, we had the best. What that proves is that it has nothing to do with the number of eggers. It is all oceanographic."

"The Gulf of Maine is a marginal sea," said Incze, "isolated from the Atlantic Ocean and the severe wind patterns. In addition, the coast of Maine's ocean is very complicated with split current systems."

Incze said that since each year's harvest is composed of many age classes of lobster, this season's haul cannot be predicted. "The jury is still out,' said Incze.


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