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Foster's Sunday Citizen

June 18, 2000

Baby lobsters under the scope

Monitoring program key to predicting annual populations

By ROBERT EMRO - Staff Writer Foster's Sunday Citizen

A volunteer measures a baby lobster as part of a new monitoring program designed to forecast annual lobster populations. Photo by Robert Emro.

NEW CASTLE—A pelting rain lashed the small, but enthusiastic group of volunteers huddled in the lower intertidal zone. An older man delineated the next 1-meter square the group would investigate along a 20-meter line at the edge of the lapping water.

Within the square marked by plastic pipes, mussels, dog whelks, and barnacles clung to rocks covered with rack weed and Irish moss. The volunteers recorded their presence, along with the percentage of rocks within the square, on waterproof data sheets. But the creatures they sought were hidden under the rocks.

The trained eye of Sara Ellis, the marine biologist training the group, spotted a likely rock. "How about that one there?" she asked. "Give that one a try." A volunteer rolled it over, exposing a murky pool of water. Then a small claw broke the surface, menacing the intruders.

With her thick rubber gloves, Ellis reached in to retrieve the little monster. "Come on Lobby, let go," she pleaded as the stubborn creature held tenaciously to its home among the rocks.

The juvenile lobster eventually released its hold, giving the volunteers a chance to examine it. They determined whether it was male or female, right or left "handed," and hard or soft shelled. They measured its length the depth of the pool and the size of the rock. This information, along with any deformities or missing limbs, was also recorded on the data sheet. When they were done, the volunteers carefully returned the lobster to its hiding spot.

These volunteers are the newest addition to the Lobster Conservancy's "Baby Lobster Watch." Active in mid-coast Maine since 1997, the conservancy received a $6,000 grant this year from the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation to expand its monitoring program into southern Maine and New Hampshire.

In addition to a site at Odiorne State Park in Rye, where it has monitored lobsters for the last three years, the conservancy hopes to add two more sites in New Hampshire, and one in Kittery, Maine. The group is also adding sites in Massachusetts.

"Rather than just one part of Maine, we want to look at the whole Gulf of Maine," said Ellis, the conservancv's executive director. "Then we can look at populations on a larger geographic scale."

By returning each month and repeating a census of the lobster population, volunteers up and down the coast will build a database of how many juvenile lobsters are in the lower intertidal zone and where they prefer to live. The information should eventually help scientists gain a better understanding of what causes lobster populations to rise and fall.

"We're looking for trends in abundance over time and geographic area," explained Ellis. "We hope to be able to use it as a predictive model for fluctuations in the catch."

That would be a useful tool for lobstermen, who hauled up 1.2 million pounds of lobsters from New Hampshire waters in 1998, worth $4.7 million. In Maine, where lobsters are the state's most valuable fishery, the catch is worth ten times as much. Accurate predictions could help lobstermen decide whether they should take out a loan for new equipment or tighten their belts in anticipation of lean times. But because it takes a lobster seven years to grow to marketable size, volunteers will have to collect years of data before lobstermen can expect a lobster catch forecast.

In the meantime, information collected by the volunteers could aid planning officials. "We'd like to provide a map to various states of where we've found lobster nursery grounds," said Ellis. "So if someone does want to develop a coastal area, we would like the presence or absence of lobster nursery grounds to be considered in the permitting process."

And by giving scientists an accurate picture of healthy juvenile lobster populations, the volunteers provide information that would be useful if they crash in the future. That happened last year in Long Island Sound, when a catastrophic lobster die off put hundreds of lobstermen out of work.

New volunteers with The Lobster Conservancy's Baby Lobster Watch learn sampling techniques at one of the group's new monitoring sites in New Castle. Photo by Robert Emro.

"Our goal is to collect baseline data over the long term, and that's important if something does go wrong," said Ellis. "In Long Island, something went wrong and they don't know what they had before."

Just how little scientists understand lobster populations was highlighted recently in an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission draft report. Although it found that lobster is being overfished, the review of the 2000 lobster assessment found the stock is not being depleted.

One theory is that decades of good egg production have kept lobster numbers high. Another explanation points to the decline in predatory groundfish, like cod, which eat juvenile lobsters. But the only thing scientists are sure of is they need more information to say with certainty what is going on.

"There's a lot of unanswered questions as far as what's going on with the resource," said Carl Wilson, the leading lobster scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "Right now there is a need for additional population estimates."

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is trying to provide some of those estimates by sampling underwater lobster nurseries. Scuba divers capture all the lobsters at a study site and bring them up to a research boat where scientists collect information similar to that gathered by the volunteers.

The Baby Lobster Watch complements the department's efforts nicely, said officials. "Everything provides a certain amount of information to the overall database," said John Nelson head of the department's Marine Fisheries office. "Something like this, if it's done on a long-term basis, can be helpful."

"For all the future marine biologists out there, there's still lots to learn," said Nelson. "We still want to totally understand what the life cycle of the lobster is. We only have it on a patchwork basis now."

The patch Lobster Conservancy volunteers are working on was only added recently. Marine biologists were unaware of the importance of the lower intertidal zone as a lobster nursery until 1992, when Lobster Conservancy President Diane Cowan noticed two boys poking around the rocks at low tide. Her "discovery" of what these children already knew was initially met with skepticism from the scientific community.

"It's only within the last 20 to 30 years that we've been able to locate any lobster nursery grounds," said Ellis. "And the discovery that they're in the intertidal zone is just getting into the scientific literature now."

While some scientists question the usefulness of studying intertidal lobsters because they live on the fringe of the animal's preferred habitat, no one disputes the Lobster Conservancy's efforts have an edge over government-funded research.

"The advantage is that you can go out and sample the animals without specialized equipment and without boats and you can get a volunteer corps of people to do it, so you can get these people involved as well," said Lew Incze, a biological oceanographer at the Bigelow Laboratory in Maine. "So there are a number of benefits to the work."

And just about anyone can volunteer. A scientific background is not required. "Anyone with a good pair of boots and a strong back can become involved," said Ellis. "And they don't even need a strong back, because they could be the data recorder."

One thing prospective researchers do need is to be signed up with the Lobster Conservancy's program. For the crustaceans' safety, it is illegal to handle juvenile lobsters without a permit.

"I think it needs to be stressed that they received official permission from the department to do this," said Fish and Game's Nelson. "These animals are hiding because they don't want to be disturbed. When you disturb them, you create the possibility for a certain amount of mortality or injury, and we certainly don't want that to happen."

"I definitely suggest doing it with a friend, because it's a lot of fun. We laugh a lot," said Timothea Jousse of Portsmouth, who started monitoring baby lobsters at Odiorne State Park in April with her friend Julie Ligon of Hampton. "We talk to the lobsters, and we're getting to know them all."

Jousse became involved in the program after learning about it from Neil Savage, the instructor of an environmental class she took at the College of Lifelong Learning. On a more serious note, she said that she hoped her efforts would help to teach more people about the importance of environmental and species diversity.

The program provides other perks as well, said Jousse. "It's a great way to get out of the everyday muckymuck of the office and the chaos of the world," she said. "If you want to eat lobsters, you've got to make sure they're growing healthy and that when they're a year old they can survive."

The Lobster Conservancy will be holding another volunteer training in July. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Sara Ellis at (207) 832-8224 or

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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