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Lobster ban urged for south of Cape

Biologists recommend 5-year moratorium

By Patrick G. Lee
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2010

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Lobster populations in a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean have declined so much that biologists are recommending a five-year ban on catching lobsters south of Cape Cod down to Virginia to allow the stock to bounce back.

The proposal is the most drastic of several options that will be considered in July by a multistate commission that regulates fishing of coastal species in the Atlantic, and it is drawing strong objections from lobstermen.

Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said he opposes the proposal because it would put hundreds of fishermen out of business.

Waters farther north, where most of New England’s lobsters are trapped, are unaffected, because the populations there remain healthy.

Lobstermen and some scientists assert that warming waters, possibly due to climate change, have allowed disease and infections to overtake lobster populations off southern New England, killing many and pushing others farther offshore into deeper, cooler waters.

Whatever the cause, the effects are clear: The number of lobsters in southern New England now stands at about 15 million, down from a peak of about 35 million over a decade ago, according to the report produced by a committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It states that a moratorium on lobster fishing poses the “maximum likelihood’’ for the stock to recover and support the industry in the future.

The proposed five-year ban is the most extreme measure suggested to date since the Lobster Technical Committee first started recommending changes to lobstering regulations in 2005. Toni Kerns, a fisheries specialist with the commission, said the drastic measure deserves full consideration because the continued, long-term decline in lobster catches confirms that it is not merely a cyclical problem.

Lobstermen, many of whom learned about the proposal in recent weeks, said they were being blamed for a problem that was not their doing. Bernie Feeney of the lobstermen’s association said regulators are suggesting the moratorium because, unlike warming sea waters, “it is the only variable they have control over. And fishermen take it on the chin every time.’’

Kerns acknowledged that no plan — even a ban — can ensure that the depleted stock rebounds. Various other environmental factors, such as changing habitats and the level of predators, play a role. But, she added, “it’s more of a guarantee than to continue to put fishing pressure on.’’

There are three populations of lobster in New England — the biggest is in the Gulf of Maine and the second largest is on Georges Bank; both of those are healthy. But the southern New England population, which can inhabit waters more than 100 miles offshore, is in trouble. Since 2002, commercial landings in parts of southern New England have decreased by over 40 percent, as has the number of lobstermen from Massachusetts fishing in the area, which now stands at less than 100.

“We may not be able to bring the stock back to the levels we saw in the late ’90s. That may have been the grand finale,’’ said Dan McKiernan, state deputy director for the Division of Marine Fisheries. “Then the question is, can you effectively recover the stock?’’

McKiernan said there are plenty of other potential measures, such as shortening the fishing season, limiting maximum catch amounts, or further reducing the number of boats and traps in the water.

On July 22, members of the fisheries commission’s American Lobster Management Board will vote on a range of options, from taking no action to imposing the five-year ban, before opening up the debate to public comment. The meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, R.I., is open to the public.

Beth Daley of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Patrick G. Lee can be reached at patrick.lee@globe.com.

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