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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lobsters in the Pot

Air Date: Week of September 18, 1998

Perhaps the most famous of Maine's marine animals is threatened by overfishing, research shows. Lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine, as well as up and down the Northeast coast, are at risk of collapse, even though this year's catch is high, and prices are low. Steve Curwood asked Andrew Rosenberg, the Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to explain.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Off the cost of Maine, there are other resources under stress, among them cod. A panel of scientists recommended this summer that emergency measures be taken to halt or sharply reduce cod fishing. But the New England Fisheries Management Council, the body responsible for preventing over-fishing, voted to take no immediate action. Andrew Rosenberg, the Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, says that even though emergency measures will not be taken, there will be new restrictions in place by early next year.

ROSENBERG: I think they will be quite severe. I think they will be survivable. We're not talking about completely closing the fishery, although if we don't take action in the coming months that probably will have to occur if we delay any longer. But the restrictions will be severe. People will be looking for other things to do. And in fact, what we've been trying to do over the last couple of years is move people off of fishing on the cod stock and fish on other species to the extent that's possible.

CURWOOD: Closer into shore, perhaps the most famous of Maine's marine animals is also threatened by over-fishing, research shows. Lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine, as well as up and down the Northeast coast, are at risk of collapse, even though this year's catch is high and prices are low. I asked Dr. Rosenberg to explain.

ROSENBERG: Most of the lobsters are just at the minimum size, have only bred once, and that means that there could be a very rapid downturn in the whole population. And that's a frightening thing to happen. Ground fishing is, you know, occurs all up and down the East Coast, but lobstering still employs more people in more locations than any other fishery, and is more value to those communities. You're talking at least 20,000 people on the Northeast coast that are involved directly in some way in the lobster business. Frankly, it's been a frustrating process for me. I've been trying to move forward with a management plan for some time. I think we're getting there, but I'm worried that we're still going too slow and the lobsters won't wait.

CURWOOD: So the market is sending the wrong signal. I mean, I walk into the market today, lobster is cheap these days compared historically. There seems to be plenty of it around.

ROSENBERG: Catches are not necessarily a good indicator of the health of the resource. In fact, they may be a very bad indicator of the health of the resource. You have to look at what is the actual population level, or what is the harvest rate. How much are we removing of the stock each year? And in fact, we're removing a very high fraction of the lobster stock each year, of the order of 60% or more. And of the older animals, I mean 90% of the catch are these small animals that have just reached the minimum size. So that means that very few animals grow to an old age. Well, it's not because they're doing something else like partying late at night. It's because they're actually getting caught and sold, of course. So you have very few big lobsters. That's indicative of a stock under very heavy pressure.

CURWOOD: So the fact that I can't find a 3-pound lobster for a major celebration is a sign that the stock is on the way out.

ROSENBERG: You should worry. That doesn't mean there aren't any big lobsters. It means there's far fewer than you would expect in a healthy population. And the reason is simple. You know, if animals can only spawn once, but in nature they're adapted to spawn many times, and lobsters can live to be very, very old in fact, then you're saying the possibility that a pair of lobsters, male and female, will replace themselves over their entire life span by having one surviving offspring that will get to breeding age, you're now going to say you have one breeding chance to do that instead of 20 breeding chances to do that.

CURWOOD: Lobsters get to be 20, 30 years old?

ROSENBERG: Oh, they get to be older than that. They don't even reproduce until they're 7. They probably get to be 50 years old. I mean, lobsters live a long time. The average breeding age or generation time is, you know, is somewhat less than that. It's probably somewhere between 10 and 20 in a healthy population. But that would mean that any lobster would expect, on average, to spawn several times over its life span in order to replace itself. Now we're saying okay, populations stay very productive but you only get to each spawn once, you know, and replace yourselves that way. And that's, you know, a difficult thing to expect. And that's a signal that a population is under too much stress.

CURWOOD: Dr. Andrew Rosenberg is Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Thank you, sir.

ROSENBERG: Thank you very much.

 

 

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