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Lobster Expert Hears Local Lore

Ellsworth American

By Aaron Porter

STONINGTON — Lobster biologist Diane Cowan came to Stonington Jan. 5 looking to talk shop with local lobstermen. She got what she wanted: a quick course on the local fishery.

Cowan, who heads the Lobster Institute in Friendship, is planning to extend her bay-specific research from Muscongus Bay to East Penobscot Bay in 2006.
To get a basic understanding of the local territory, and to gauge interest in her research, Cowan met with a handful of Stonington lobstermen at the Penobscot East Resource Center.

Among other topics, Cowan learned that lobster fishing has been better down the bay in recent years; there are more seals around; and specific locations where egg-bearing females tend to congregate were disclosed.

Everyone doing well is working down the bay, said lobstermen Bob Williams during a discussion of last spring’s strong catch. He said herring runs that used to go up the bay are no longer serving as a food source for lobsters because they have moved elsewhere.

In addition, the fishermen said, predatory seals are driving lobsters to the safety of deeper water.

“Seals eat lobsters like you and I eat popcorn,” agreed lobsterman Dick Bridges.

Cowan noted that in her study of Muscongus Bay, many young lobsters that stayed in shallower reaches of the bay went out to deeper water when it was time to shed their shells.

The year-long research Cowan is looking to replicate in Penobscot Bay tracked 191 egg-bearing female lobsters of various sizes and equipped with acoustic transmitters and temperature recorders. By working with lobstermen in the Muscongus Bay area, she was able to get 76 percent recovery of the tagged lobsters.
Lobstermen are important to her work as more than sources of returned lobsters, she said, adding that the lobstermen she contracted with to monitor acoustic transmitters had a good idea where lobsters would go and when and where egg-bearing females could be found.

Stonington lobsterman Ted Ames used a chart to point to specific areas off the eastern end of the Fox Islands Thorofare where he said he’s seen egg-bearing females congregate in the past. A short history of the fishery in that few square miles of the bay followed, with other fishermen chiming in.
Cowan listened intently, comparing what she was hearing with the results of her earlier work. Indeed, the reason for repeating a similar study Downeast is to compare results.
“You do a study once and you think you know something. Do it twice and you don’t,” she said, only partly in jest.

She told the lobstermen the results of her Muscongus Bay study suggest a few important behaviors or trends that must be confirmed with work from other areas.
First, the study found smaller egg-bearing females stay through the winter in the bay where they were when they fertilized their eggs. Then they tend to distribute their hatching young in the same vicinity. However, larger egg-bearing females tend to wander through the winter, staying in warmer water and travelling, in some cases, hundreds of miles, distributing their young as they hatch.

“They’re not putting all their eggs in one basket. They’re spreading them out,” she said. “They’re enhancing stocks and mixing the genetic diversity.”

Lack of such large travelling lobsters and genetic diversity they distribute could have been a problem with the Long Island Sound lobster fishery that collapsed in the late 1990s. Cowan said lobstermen and researchers referred to the Sound lobsters as “pygmies” because of their consistently small size. That size, coupled with the fact that the stock hasn’t rebounded, could indicate that there wasn’t a population of large females to travel and reseed a lobster population along that coast.

Referring to the V-notching program allowing Maine lobstermen to protect egg-bearing females, and a maximum size limit allowing large lobsters to go forth and multiply, Cowan drew some supporting conclusions from her research. “Here’s a reason why what you’ve been doing really is a good thing,” she said.

The study she is proposing for Penobscot Bay would start in 2006, if funding to pay lobstermen and researchers is secured.

For information call the Penobscot East Resource Center 367-2708.

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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