WARWICK, R.I.—A proposal to ban lobster fishing over a vast stretch of the East Coast was killed Thursday after lobstermen said it would do "almost biblical" damage to the industry.
The board that advises the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on lobster rules voted instead to consider lesser reductions in the catch -- or no new restrictions at all.
The vote by the American Lobster Management Board came after lobstermen said a possible five-year ban on lobster fishing from south of Cape Cod, Mass., to North Carolina would destroy their businesses just as the species is rebounding.
Board member Bill McElroy, a Rhode Island lobsterman, argued a moratorium made no sense, since lobstermen aren't overfishing and a moratorium wouldn't rebuild the lobster population to levels regulators are targeting.
"The board needs to confront the reality of destroying the fishery to save the lobsters," he said. "It doesn't really do anybody any good."
The board later approved a motion by Doug Grout, Marine Division chief at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, that it consider one of three options to rebuild lobster stocks: cutting the lobster catch by 75 percent, cutting it by 50 percent or keeping the current rules, which include conservation measures to protect smaller lobsters and reproductive females.
A moratorium could possibly resurface the next time the board considers rule changes. The current rule change isn't likely to be adopted before next spring.
John German, a lobsterman from New York's Long Island, said he was relieved the moratorium was killed this year, but he said the industry can't survive any new cuts.
"There ain't nothing we can give up right now," he said. "The status quo has got to be it."
Peter Brodeur, a Point Judith, R.I., lobstermen since 1979, said the decision gives lobstermen another year or so but likely no more, since he believes the board will approve one of the two cuts, which he called "poison pills."
"The moratorium was the bullet in a gun that was pointed to our head," he said. "A poison pill has been put in front of us. ... Once it's digested, it will kill us anyway."
The region under review is called the southern New England region, although it extends from south of the tip of Cape Cod all the way to North Carolina. It accounts for 5 to 7 percent of the Northeast's lobster catch; the rest is trapped north of Cape Cod to Maine. Roughly 2,000 to 3,000 full- and part-time lobstermen work in the southern New England region, according to the commission.
The area once trapped as much as a quarter of the Northeast's catch, and its lobster population peaked at about 35 million in the late 1990s. But the stock sank to around 13 million by 2003 and is estimated at about 15 million today, compared with around 116 million lobsters in the Gulf of Maine.
Scientists cannot explain the recent crash, but possible factors include overfishing, a 1996 Rhode Island oil spill and a disfiguring shell disease. They also believe the slow rebound may be partly explained by warmer water temperatures that have driven lobsters to cooler, deeper waters -- away from prime spawning grounds and to places where more predators lurk.
The five-year fishing moratorium was recommended by the board's technical committee in May.
Committee head Carl Wilson said in an interview Thursday that the stock assessment was conducted over three years using the best science available. Fisherman aren't currently overfishing, but Wilson said trapping more lobsters from the already-stressed population would hurt the species. He said the panel wouldn't have recommended the ban if the stock wasn't in such dire condition.
But lobstermen suggested the downturn was cyclical. They said they're seeing more and bigger lobsters, and urged the board to give more time to the current conservation measures rather than enact a ban.
"This is almost biblical what you're proposing here," said Nick Crismale of the Connecticut Lobsterman's Association. "It impacts numerous lives."
After the vote, lobsterman Al Schaffer of Long Island said the threat of a moratorium at least put the issue in the headlines and put pressure on regulators. Now, he said, the board probably won't re-examine what he called flawed science behind the population estimates or hold off on cuts, the lowest of which he said would do him in.
"They threw the boldest thing out in front to shake everybody up, and in honesty it really did. Everybody lost sleep over it," Schaffer said. "Personally it was a nightmare. Now that it's off, ... 50 percent is just as bad."