WARWICK, R.I. A proposal to ban lobster fishing over a vast stretch of the East Coast would do almost biblical damage to the industry just as the species seems to be rebounding, lobstermen told a fisheries panel.
Dozens of lobstermen traveled to Warwick this week for a meeting of the board that advises the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on lobster rules.
The board is considering ways to help a species that has been struggling since a population crash a decade ago, including a possible five-year moratorium on lobstering from south of Cape Cod to North Carolina. A decision is expected by late this year.
Lobstermen told the American Lobster Management Board that the species was in far better shape than scientists say and argued it should give less severe conservation measures time to work.
This is almost biblical what youre proposing here, said Nick Crismale of the Connecticut Lobstermans Association. It impacts numerous lives.
Bart Mansi recalled a mysterious lobster die-off in Long Island Sound in 1999 as a disaster.
What we have now, there is no disaster, said Mansi, of Guilford, Conn. The board is making a disaster.
The moratorium was recommended by the boards technical committee in May. The commission will consider other options including no change to the current rules, which include measures that protect smaller lobsters and reproductive females before making a final decision, expected by the end of the year.
On Thursday, the board discussed commissioning a peer review of the science behind the recommended ban, though some said a ban shouldnt even be considered because it would kill the industry.
The board needs to confront the reality of destroying the fishery to save the lobsters, said Bill McElroy, a Rhode Island lobsterman and board member. It doesnt really do anybody any good.
Carl Wilson, head of the lobster boards technical committee, said in an interview during a break that his group was keenly aware of the impact a ban would have on the industry. The panel wouldnt have recommended it if the stock wasnt in such dire condition, he said.
During a presentation Thursday, Wilson said the moratorium aimed to give a generation of lobsters a chance to rebound. He added five years might not be long enough to allow that, which prompted grumbling in the room. One person yelled out, Going to stick it to us, huh?
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 Northeasts lobster catch; the rest is trapped north of Cape Cod to Maine. About 2,000 to 3,000 full- and part-time lobstermen work in the southern New England region, according to the commission.
The area once accounted for as much as a quarter of the Northeasts 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 about 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. In its May report, the technical committee said warmer water may be holding back stocks because that drives lobsters to cooler, deeper waters away from prime spawning grounds and to places where more predators lurk.
Lobstermen suggested the downturn may be cyclical. They said theyre seeing more and bigger lobsters, and urged the board to give more time to the current conservation measures.
I dont know how we woke up thinking there was this picture of doom and gloom, said Joe Horvath of Belmont, N.J. Ive been fishing for 40 years. ... I dont see any crash of the fishery.
Albert Rosinha of Westport, Mass., said, Im seeing a totally different picture in my traps.
Wilson said in an interview that the stock assessment was conducted over three years using the most robust science available.
Fishermen currently are not overfishing, but Wilson said trapping more lobsters from the already-stressed population would hurt the species.
The bans potentially profound effects on lobstermen must be taken into account by regulators before anything is done, Wilson said. But he said his committees job was to figure out what was best for the lobsters so the industry has a sustainable future.
I dont think the fishermen want biologists to become sociologists, or anthropologists or economists, he said. Our job is to protect the resource.