Lobster Industry Faces Lean Times

November 12, 2003 by Roger Berle
Portland Pigeon

It was the night before Hallowe’en, which made the occasion even more eery than it might have been. And it was on an island, with a dark boat ride across unfamiliar waters awaiting... Who would show up, given a legendary tradition of disrespect between fishermen and the scientists who study what these men and women do. A history of mystery: would the meeting yield trickery or a treat??

Whooooooo - the future of the lobstering industry is considered quite scary to many! The boom years have continued unabated, but will this afternoon’s crateful have been the last? Hasn’t it been just too much of a good thing? Are the boats catching up too many lobsters just over the minimum size, before they have a chance to gain maturity and become prolific breeders? Are the females taking their fertilized eggs off to other states’ coastal waters? Will the blights of Long Island Sound and Rhode Island inevitably “infect” the Gulf of Maine?

Photo by Lesley MacVane

And it is tricky, too. There are so many interrelationships between lobsters and: sea urchins; kelp; codfish; sea bass; whale saviours; and regulators. The catch faces new challenges each season (which runs in these inshore waters from late June until about now).

The end of October has traditionally marked the end of the lobstering season in these parts. Men have gathered up their gear for two basic reasons. First, the men have wanted their gear up before heading north for a couple of weeks of hunting [nowadays, of course, the deer are ambling across these same peoples’ yards right here on Portland’s islands]. But, second, they haul out to avoid losing gear to November storms; the price starts rising again moving toward the holidays with more demand than supply, but the risk rises even faster. It’s not unusual to suffer thousands of dollars in lost traps in one good gale.

So, it was a treat to gather a dozen or so Cliff Island lobstermen and women in a room with the two principals of The Lobster Conservancy. Diane Cowan and Sara Ellis, each with a portfolio of impressive credentials, presented a power point talk about the research they have been doing for a couple of years out of Friendship Long Island in Muscongus Bay. Incredibly, they have attached sensors and chips to the carapaces of hundreds of female lobsters and have tracked their movements across the seabed during all four seasons. Water temperature, distance, and depth are some of the variables. Then they have equipped regular lobstermen, just like these folks in this community hall tonight, with detection equipment to track and mark where these “girls” travel.

There were good questions asked and answered. There were anecdotes swapped in both directions: about lobster (shell) colors (blue, white, even red!); about fishing the “mud” versus the hummocks of bottom ledge; about the effectiveness of the v-notch (conservation protection of egg-bearing females).

The point of the power point encounter? One point was to demonstrate how the TLC research can isolate factors (where the females go and how they accomplish the mating necessary to produce millions more lobster larvae) which become data important to understanding trends. It seems that male lobsters will be male lobsters (just like,uh…) and that the females know exactly what they are doing when they sense that biological time clock ticking (sorta like,uh…). The grand, natural plan looks like it will survive man, boat, and environmental influences here off the Maine Coast.

The other point? To have scientists and fishermen in the same room exchanging constructive dialogue and information.

The Maine lobster was late getting started with her/his activity this past summer. Folks were becoming worried: was it the endless cold of winter and spring, or was it THE END?

Photo by Lesley MacVane

This night, scientist and lobsterman seemed to agree that it was the former and that no more worrying than normal was necessary. Both professionals should have a role to play for the forseeable future and there should be lobster on our tables for years to come.

No one was going hunting quite yet: the gear is still fishing “pretty good.”