Boiling over lobsters Conservation: Officials warn of overfishing and plan restrictions even as Maine's famously independent lobstermen haul a record catch.

August 20, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ROCKLAND, Maine -- With a flourish, the cooks unlatch the so-called World's Largest Steamer. Some 400 lobsters, bright red after their 11-minute steam bath, are hauled out and rushed to the crowds lined up to crack into them. Another 400 go into the steamer, and another and another over a weekend in which lobster is king but also lunch.

The Maine Lobster Festival held here this month is a small town's salute to the state's iconic crustacean. There was much to celebrate: Maine lobstermen are coming off their best year ever, having caught 46.3 million pounds of sweet bounty in 1997, with a value of $136.1 million.

But even as a parade of homemade floats rolled down Main Street and this year's Sea Goddess was crowned, bubbling just beneath the surface were fears that the reasons for celebrating this unique slice of coastal life may be fading.

Lobsters are being overfished and the population is in danger of collapse, say federal regulators who are considering new restrictions on fishermen that would take effect next year. The measures could include increasing the legal size of lobsters that can be sold and reducing the number of traps each fisherman can haul.

But some lobstermen counter that overfishing isn't the problem; over-regulating is.

"We're getting it from all levels," said Dave Cousens, a fisherman and president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "But from my view, the lobstering has never been better."

Both sides agree that lobsters indeed are plentiful. The disagreement comes over how much longer this abundance will last.

"This can't go on forever," said Steven Murawski, chief of the population dynamics branch at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to announce new restrictions soon. "The amount of catch has gone up faster than the amount of stock has gone up. No population grows at an exponential rate forever. The lobster fishery is at a danger point. It is one bad year away from disaster."

Doomsayers can point to several recent collapses of other fisheries that similarly were coming off record years. Haddock catches, for example, peaked just before their stock at Georges Bank collapsed. And in Alaska, fishermen enjoyed 15 straight years of abundant red king crabs followed by a collapse.

With Maine's lobsters, it's not just the size of recent catches that is troubling, said Murawski, who is based in Woods Hole, Mass. It's also that 90 percent of the lobsters caught have just reached the legal size limit, meaning they are juveniles that haven't had a chance to breed the next generation yet. This bodes badly for the replenishment of the population, he said.

Rising debate

The debate over conservation is reaching new levels as state and federal officials increasingly regulate the notoriously independent fishermen. The state has jurisdiction over the waters up to three miles from shore, where federal control takes over.

"It's a way of life for a lot of generations. It shouldn't be taken away," said Wayne Fowler, a volunteer cook manning the steamer at the festival and a one-time lobster boat worker. The heightened restrictions have convinced him to take a "land" job, at a Nautica distribution center in town, rather than try for his own lobster operation.

The image of the lobsterman in his yellow storm gear, the captain of his boat and his destiny, is one of the state's enduring symbols. Maine by far leads the nation in lobster catches, trapping half the U.S. total and twice as much as the next state, Massachusetts.

But in recent years, this once simple way of life has become more complicated and more competitive.

As other fish populations have plummeted, many fishermen have switched to lobstering. Faced with new competition, some lobstermen have increased the number of traps that they haul, which in turn can necessitate a bigger boat and crew. To offset their higher expenses, they have had to fish longer and harder, putting additional pressure on the lobster stock -- and leading to further government restrictions to protect the valuable fishery.

It is testimony to how complicated lobstering has become in this new era of regulation that there are disputes even within the opposing sides: Lobstermen are arguing among themselves, with some favoring heightened conservation measures and others suing over those very restrictions. And there is disagreement among scientists over the severity of the overfishing problem -- or whether it actually exists.

'Absolute crisis'

"We've been in absolute crisis in Maine," said lobsterman Pat White, shaking his head as he piloted his boat Restless II through calm waters off the coast. "This whole business, it's just invariably become crisis management. We don't do anything until there's a crisis."

White, 58, has been fishing since his teens, although as executive director of the state lobstermen's association he finds himself increasingly on land, dealing with his industry's changes.

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