Maine lobstermen will have the opportunity to voice their thoughts about the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) draft Addendum 27 to the lobster fishery management plan at three public hearings in early March. The draft Addendum proposes measures to increase protection of the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank lobster spawning stock. “Lobstermen should know that this is not ‘take-it-or-leave-it.’ Everything proposed in the document can be mixed and matched,” said Patrick Keliher, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner and ASMFC board member.
The ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board initiated Addendum 27 in 2017 as a proactive measure to improve the resiliency of the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank lobster stock in response to a declining trend in lobster settlement since 2012. The Board’s goal was to avoid the economic devastation experienced by lobstermen in Southern New England (SNE) due to a decline in the SNE lobster stock. The Board approved its first draft of Addendum 27 in 2021 which included gauges changes which could be triggered by a 17% decline in lobster stock indices, and well as measures to standardize management measures across lobster management areas.
Work on the Addendum was paused when National Marine Fisheries Service announced that the Northeast Lobster fishery would be required to achieve a 90% risk reduction by 2024 to protect right whales. “Federal regulations proposed to protect right whales, such as trap reductions and large closed areas, would benefit the lobster stocks so it made sense to delay [Addendum 27] until the benefits of those measures could be assessed,” Keliher said.
The landscape changed again in December of 2022 when Congress enacted a six-year delay in any new whale rules for the lobster industry while providing funding to better understand the threats facing right whales. “With the six-year pause in any new whale regulations coupled with the 23% decline in juvenile lobster indices, the lobster board agreed that it could not further delay taking some kind of action,” Keliher said. Under the original Addendum 27, a 23% could have already triggered a change in the gauge size.
The Lobster Board voted to send a revised draft Addendum 27 out for public comment during its February meeting. The revised draft is less aggressive than the original proposal and considers a mechanism that would initiate management measures, specifically gauge and vent size changes, which could be triggered by a 32% decline in lobster stock indices. Proposed changes to the Area 1 minimum gauge range from 3 5/16” to 3 3/8” (status quo 3 ¼”), while changes to the Area 3 maximum gauge range from 6 ½” to 6” (status quo 6 ¾”). Trap reductions are not included as a management tool. It would establish minimum standards for regulations across all Lobster Management Areas (LMAs).
Maine lobstermen have experienced an unprecedented growth in landings during the past two decades, largely prompted by an increase in Gulf of Maine water temperature offering more areas suitable as lobster nurseries. Maine landings have increased three-fold, from 57 million pounds in 2000 to a record high of 132.6 million pounds in 2016. Lobster landings have dropped, but are still robust, at 97.9 million and 108.9 million pounds in 2020 and 2021.
However, a decline in numbers across all lobster surveys, ventless trap and spring and fall trawl surveys in particular, hints at a continued decline in lobster landings. The lobster fishery is the economic driver for many parts of the coast, where many small communities rely on lobstermen to keep the local economy afloat. If the fishery should crash, so would those communities. “We are coming off historic highs,” Keliher acknowledged. “We want a trigger that recognizes that and protects our high value fishery. That is why the revised draft addendum considers changing the gauge only if the indices show at least a 32% decline, rather than the 17% decline originally considered.”
The draft addendum also seeks to standardize management measures across all LMAs, such as maximum gauge size and definition of a V-notch. “Part of that is considering a maximum gauge size for outer Cape Cod. They don’t have one now,” said Keliher.
A trigger that would cause new management measures to be implemented would be based on specific ongoing surveys of the lobster resource, namely, the combined Maine/New Hampshire and Massachusetts spring and fall trawl survey indices and the computer model-based ventless trap survey index. “The range [of decline] is now between 32% and 45%,” explained Keliher. That percentage is relative to the reference abundance level which is equal to the average of the survey values from 2016-2018, compared to the most recent year of survey data.
The other option is to create a date-specific trigger. “It would be status quo until 2026 and then the trigger goes into effect. After that it would take at least a year to implement,” Keliher said.
Should the stock reach the trigger level, changes to gauge and vent sizes would be put in place to protect the spawning stock. Those changes might be done all at once — a single change in gauge and vent sizes — or be implemented gradually over time.
“I don’t support anything [in the draft addendum] until I have feedback from the public comment process,” Keliher emphasized. “I want to reassure fishermen that the sky is not falling, but we are seeing some negative trends that are worrisome. We have a fishery that has always been based on conservation — size limits, V-notching, returning eggers. This is an extension of that.”