Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why so few lobster boats?

lobster buoys on a calm morning
Come July and August, somewhere between six and seven a.m., the growl of lobster boats revving and calming as they move from trap to trap wafts in our windows on Muscongus Bay. A confetti of lobster buoys dots the water of the sound, and when going out ourselves, we have to keep a sharp eye out to avoid fouling our boat propellor in the rope that leads from each buoy to a trap on the bottom.

That's most years.

This year, buoys are scarce in the shallow waters near Hockomock Point.  Early mornings are quiet.  Even the gulls hush their raucous cries without the attraction of stinky bait being scooped into nets and tied into lobster traps.  And this is in a year when a glut of lobsters has driven prices paid to lobstermen down to a forty-year low.  What's going on?

eggs on the tail of a female lobster
First, the lobster glut. Lobster landings have been rising steadily for the past ten years, but this is the biggest year yet.  Why?  Most fishermen and scientists believe that lobstering in the Gulf of Maine is a well-managed fishery.  Lobster licenses are limited.  Only lobsters of a certain size--between three and five inches from behind the eye to the end of the back--may be kept. The others must be thrown back, the smaller ones to grow more and the larger ones to serve as (presumably robust) breeding stock.
Any egger--a female with 10,000 eggs clinging to her tail--must not only be thrown back, but her tail must be notched so that every fisherman forever knows that as a breeding female, she's off limits.

Another factor in the recent rise in lobster catches may be the decline in the population of groundfish, the major predators of young post-larval lobsters.  Only now, after years of vigorous management, is the population of cod beginning to rebound.  As for how cod affect young lobsters, I can vouch for that: this weekend we landed four cod, more than in decades, and three of the four had young, three-inch lobsters in their throats.

In theory, a third factor is found by looking at lobster fishing as a great, opportunistic aquaculture project.  Most lobsters have moved in and out of traps, eating bait fish, many times before they're finally large enough not to fit out the special escape hatches built into each trap.  Most have probably been caught and thrown back many times before they're large enough to catch and keep.  Lobsters have even been filmed moving in and out of unbaited traps to check the kitchen.  Maybe we have so many lobsters because we're feeding them well.

But why the special glut this year?  The reason seems to be an especially warm winter. One effect was an earlier and more productive lobster fishing season in the Canadian part of the Gulf of Maine.  Coupled with that, plentiful shedders or soft-shell lobsters, those that come closer inshore to molt, arrived in Maine waters about six weeks earlier than usual, at a time when the Canadian processing plants, which take about 50% of Maine lobsters, were still full with the large Canadian take.  Soft shell lobsters, which are the usual summer variety, are difficult to ship long distances in the shell, so the local market is full, and lobstermen are getting only around $2 per pound.

Why then, are lobster boats so scarce in Muscongus Sound?  I can offer a couple of hypotheses.  One reason may be an unofficial lobster strike. Up and down the coast, lobstermen have organized hasty protests by staying in, not going fishing, in hopes that prices will go up.  It hasn't worked yet.

The problem with this hypothesis is that none of the lobster strikes have lasted more than a week.  Besides, in the next bay east, or farther out in deeper water, pot buoys are still numerous.

idle lobster traps with growing weeds
So my second hypothesis is that lobsters have moved offshore or Downeast to cooler waters.  I can't remember a year when jumping off our dock at Hockomock Point has been less chilling than this year.  Swimming off the dock used to be so cold that the only reason to do it would be to feel good when you got out.  This year it's just a pleasant cool-down on hot, muggy days.

So maybe the same warm waters that brought the lobsters in to shed early has now driven them farther north and east to escape waters that have become unseasonably warm.  Meanwhile, another lobster season is about to open in New Brunswick, and the Canadian lobstermen are already grumbling about the glut of Maine lobster driving down the market.

At a time when it's hard to keep up with what fish it's "green" to eat, which species are well-managed and which are in decline, it's good to know that this summer, at least, eating lobster as fast as we can may be a patriotic act.

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