The lobster fishing industry in Maine is known the world over for its sustainability. Maine lobstermen take great pride in understanding and appreciating its resources, its history, all while planning for the future. In order to keep the lobster fishery as strong as possible in the state of Maine, lobstermen and regulators keep their focus on maintaining the sustainability of the fishery. With careful management and protection, the intention is that fishery stocks will continue to provide famous Maine lobsters for generations to come.
What’s Done Right?
Maine lobstermen protect female lobsters from being landed and sold. To do that, they notch a small “V” in the tail of a female lobster which is carrying eggs. The practice began decades ago when lobstermen decided to take it upon themselves to conserve the egg-bearing females to ensure an abundance of young lobsters in the future. Now it is illegal for a notched female lobster to be landed in the state. As one Downeast lobsterman said, “We are benefiting right now from the stewardship of previous generations. I started on deck and learned that V-notching is simply what you do.”
Maine set its first size regulations in 1874, establishing the minimum legal size a lobster must be before it can be landed. Harvesting small lobsters, many lobstermen recognized, just made no sense. If the lobster had not reached the point of sexual maturity, taking small lobsters meant reducing the number of young lobsters in the future. Taking large, older lobsters, particularly females, would also reduce the number of young since those lobsters produced more eggs. So, in order to protect both the young immature lobsters, and the larger fertile lobsters, Maine has minimum and maximum size restrictions. All lobstermen must carry a metal gauge; that gauge measures a lobster from eye socket to edge of the carapace at the tail. A lobster must be at least 3-1/4 inches up to 5 inches in size. Those smaller or larger are tossed back into the ocean. The Department of Marine Resources 2019 at-sea surveys of lobstermen’s catches indicates that close to four out of every five lobsters found in each trap are below legal size.
Per the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, it will take a lobster an average of 5-7 years to reach market size. Due to this, it is incredibly hard to farm raise lobsters, as is done with say salmon and oysters, due to the amount of time it takes along with feeding and maintaining them. Another struggle to farm grown lobsters is that when they are in close quarters, they will begin to eat each other. This is another reason for the rubber bands being put on the claws of lobsters when they are caught. However, lobsters being farm raised cannot wear the bands for 5-7 years, and therefore must be kept in individual pens.
Escape Vents (Trap Technology)
So you’ve set your lobster trap well stocked with smelly bait. Here come the lobsters! But what about the smaller lobsters, those that are below legal size? To avoid having traps bursting with tiny lobsters, each lobster trap in Maine comes equipped with an escape vent. The vent is a small horizontal opening in the trap wire sized precisely to allow sub-legal lobsters to exit the trap. In addition, all traps used in Maine have a ghost panel which will allow all the lobsters to escape if the trap is lost at sea. The panel is attached with biodegradable material that will degrade quickly. These measures ensure that those who are too young to be landed, aren’t and that traps that become unattached to their buoys and lost on the sea floor do not keep capturing lobsters.
Each of the seven zone councils establishes how many traps lobstermen in the zone are allowed to fish. That limit is based on a deep concern for the future of the lobster population in each individual zone. If every person with a commercial license were allowed as many traps as he or she wanted, the lobsters would soon be at unsustainable numbers. Six of the lobster zones have a limit of 800 traps per license holder; one zone has a 600 trap limit. While these numbers may seem high, remember that a lobsterman generally works by himself or with a single sternman. Setting and hauling hundreds of traps typically takes several days on the water, which limits the amount of lobster that any one lobsterman can harvest.