STONINGTON — “We’re not talking about whales.”
Those were among the first words from Kathleen Reardon, lead biologist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), to lobstermen at Stonington Town Hall on March 31.
Both ongoing lawsuits and legislation aimed at protecting right whales from entanglement with lobster trap lines have delayed lobster stock assessments and analysis. But now lobster councils are meeting across the state to hear about a draft addendum to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) lobster management plan for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, where 90 percent of U.S. landings are.
The Zone C Council met March 31 at Stonington Town Hall. The DMR will share the same information with the Zone B Council on April 11 at MDI High School at 5 p.m.
First started in 2017, ASFMC Draft Addendum 27’s aim is to ensure there’s enough lobster stock for the future using either a defined trigger level based on three-year-average declines in recruit numbers or a predetermined schedule to implement measures. Recruits are defined as having a carapace (shell) length of 71-80 millimeters.
The ASMFC manages near-shore fisheries for 15 states, including Maine. The draft addendum would affect Lobster Management Areas 1 and 3 and off Cape Cod as well as Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
For the last year or two, annual spring and fall surveys to monitor stock settlement and analyze the results took a back seat to COVID-19 and ongoing lawsuits and legislation to protect endangered right whales from entanglement with trap lines. The most recent survey data analyzed is from 2018 and 2020.
“The sublegals you were seeing in your traps looked pretty good,” Reardon said. “In the last five years, that’s changed.”
The measures being considered are increasing gauge sizes, increasing minimum and decreasing maximum legal catch sizes, modifying V-notch rules or doing nothing. Catch quotas are not being discussed, Reardon said.
Increasing the minimum legal size of lobsters would allow young lobsters to grow, increasing the lobster stock for the future. At the same time, decreasing the maximum legal size would protect the largest female lobsters who carry the most eggs. The minimum size increase is recommended for Lobster Management Area 1, where Zone C lobstermen fish, and the maximum size decrease for Lobster Management Area 3.
“You want to downplay the decrease in maximum size and you’re up-playing what the increase will do,” lobsterman Darrell Williams said.
“If we want to impact the stock, [increased minimum legal sizes] has to happen in Area 1 because that’s where the lobsters are,” Reardon said. Additionally, “a very small change in the minimum size has a very large impact.”
The different management approaches to different management areas make sense, she noted, because those areas are protecting certain lobsters.
Plus, with the combined recruit index through 2020 for Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank showing a 16 percent decline, and all Maine sublegal indices down in 2021, “the drop we are seeing is big in eastern Maine and is being driven by Zone C,” Reardon said.
Lobsterman Virginia Olsen asked if the biological impact of the newly enacted seasonal closure in LMA 1 was considered in stock assessments. Reardon said no.
She also noted the “pretty big” difference between U.S. and Canadian management rules. One lobsterman noted that with an increase in minimum legal size, the lobsters might swim over the border before they were big enough for Maine lobstermen to catch.
Reardon wasn’t worried.
“You’re still going to catch these lobsters later,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to move that far.”
Standardizing the measures across all management areas is also an option but “that may not protect lobsters in all areas,” Reardon said.
“We should be the gold standard,” Olsen said.
Draft Addendum 27 first was started in 2017 but sidelined by the right whale issue, Reardon said. After the ASMFC technical review team, which Reardon chairs, meets, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher will meet with the seven lobster zone councils in Maine. An ASMFC comment period will follow, and the addendum would be voted on this August or October. Maine has one vote.
“There’s time for feedback, there’s time for conversation,” Reardon said, later adding, “I absolutely know this may get turned on its head in a couple of months.”