Did You Know?

Local Summer Fisheries – Lobster

Lobster prices are currently at their lowest level since the 1970s in Maine (Photo Credit: US Geological Survey, Woods Hole MA)

Madi Gamble is the Ocean Conservation intern this summer at CLF.  She grew up fishing in Marblehead, MA and is a rising senior at Dartmouth College, where she studies biology and environmental science. 

If apple pie is the quintessential American dessert, American lobster may be the quintessential summer New England dinner.  Harvested since colonial times, lobsters are most abundant from Maine to New Jersey in rocky habitats both inshore and offshore.  Today, there are three stocks of American lobster: the Gulf of Maine stock, the Georges Bank stock, and the Southern New England stock.  While they are harvested year-round, lobster season peaks between May and November in New England, and Maine and Massachusetts have historically been responsible for the majority of the lobster harvest.  Lobsters are caught in rectangular traps made of wire, which are baited (usually with forage fish), lowered to the ocean floor, and marked by a floating buoy whose colors and design are unique to its owner.  Lobsters must molt in order to grow, and usually shed their exoskeleton 20-25 times in the 5-8 years before they are old enough reproduce.  Interestingly, we don’t find lobster shells because lobsters often eat their old shells, which are valuable sources of calcium, immediately after molting.  Lobsters are opportunistic omnivores; larvae and very young lobsters eat zooplankton, while adults feed on invertebrates such as worms, starfish, sea urchins, and mollusks, as well as fish and macroalgae (seaweed).  Juvenile lobsters are prey for many species of fish, as well as octopuses, crabs, skates, sharks, and rays.

Lobster abundance by year for the three stocks (Photo Credit: ASMFC)

Management of lobster populations in New England began as early as the late 1800s when lobstermen noticed a decrease in the number and size of the lobsters they caught.  Regulations were imposed regarding the time of year lobsters could be harvested and the size lobsters must reach before they may be kept.  The state of Maine even banned keeping egg-bearing females to try to boost reproduction.  Since then, populations have been relatively stable, but in the past few years lobstermen have been hauling in record numbers of lobster from the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stock areas.  To help determine the status of each stock, assessments of the three American lobster stocks are performed every 2 to 5 years by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), under which NOAA and individual states jointly manage the lobster fishery.  Each state is responsible for implementing and enforcing regulations in its own waters (which extend 3 miles from the coast) while NOAA regulates federal waters beyond the 3 mile limit.  Under this management plan, the American lobster’s range is broken into 7 areas, each with its own Lobster Conservation Management Team that recommends management measures and regulations to the ASMFC depending on the needs of their area.  Today, the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stocks are healthy and fishing pressures are sustainable.  However, managers have determined that the Southern New England stock is depleted, but that environmental and biological factors are playing a bigger role than fishing mortality in the population decline and recruitment failure.  An initial plan has been implemented by the ASMFC to reduce effort in the areas composing the Southern New England stock in the hope that the population will eventually rebuild.

Lobster regulations currently vary from area to area.  There is an overall minimum carapace length (from the eye socket to the beginning of the tail) of 3 ¼ inches, and some states have maximum carapace lengths (5 inches in Maine) in order to protect those lobsters with the highest reproductive capacity.  Most areas have limits on either the number of traps any single vessel can maintain or the geographic area within which a lobsterman may set his traps.  In an effort to protect reproductive females, many states prohibit keeping female lobsters, egg-baring females, or lobsters that have been V-notched.  V-notching is a practice in which lobstermen cut a V in the tail of any egg-bearing (aka “berried”) female lobsters they catch.  This lets other lobstermen know that the female is a reproducing member of the brood stock.  V-notching is required in most areas, but many lobstermen outside of these areas do it voluntarily in the interest of conservation.  Finally, there are gear restrictions.  All lobster traps must have escape vents that allow lobsters under the legal size to escape.  They must also have “ghost panels”, a side of the trap attached to the rest by biodegradable fittings that will disintegrate over time so that the trap will not continue to catch lobsters if it is lost or abandoned.

Special: The 2012 Maine Lobster Surplus:

Warmer ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine this winter and spring led lobsters to molt much earlier  than normal, resulting in a huge surplus of soft-shelled lobster in New England markets.  Soft-shelled lobsters generally have less meat than hard-shelled lobsters, and are too delicate to stay in good shape when shipped over long distances.  Normally, most of the soft-shells that are caught in Maine early in the season are shipped to processing and canning plants in Canada, but this year Canada saw a similar surplus in their soft-shell catch and the plants didn’t have the usual extra capacity to accept Maine lobsters.  Because consumers don’t generally expect to see lobster for sale until around the Fourth of July, there wasn’t enough demand in June and early July to move the soft-shells through the market.  As a result, lobster prices in Maine are at their lowest levels in almost 30 years, and many lobstermen aren’t even getting enough to cover the costs of going out and maintaining their traps.  Additionally, because lobsters can’t be preserved for long periods after they are caught, it hasn’t been possible to spread the glut of lobsters over a larger geographic area.  Thus lobster lovers outside of Maine aren’t likely to see the drastically reduced prices that have so many lobstermen worried in Maine.  However, many lobstermen are optimistic that news of the lower prices will boost summer tourism in Maine, which might in turn raise prices towards the end of the summer.  Maine lawmakers say they are unable to officially shut down the lobster industry (which many lobstermen argue would reduce supply and bring prices back up), but they are committed to working with lobstermen to solve the price crisis and ensure that measures are in place to deal with oversupply should it happen again in the future.  Check out a blog post by WGBH to find out more about the different reasons behind the lobster surplus.

Recipe:  Lobster Salad (my grandmother’s recipe)

(Makes 3 lobster rolls or 2 salad servings on crisp Bibb/Boston lettuce)

1 lb. cooked, cleaned and cut up lobster meat (tail, claws, and knuckle)

½ – 1 fresh celery stalk, cut into 1/3” dice

1 – 2 tablespoons Hellman’s mayonnaise

Cut lobster meat into approximately ½” chunks. Mix with diced celery and mayo.  It is important to keep all ingredients chilled when not actually preparing them. Chill lobster salad until ready to serve.

For lobster rolls, use good quality “hot dog” rolls, or soft “dinner” rolls. Brush the insides of the roll with melted butter and toast lightly, if desired.


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