2005-08-04 / Front Page

Are regulations putting the lobsterman out of business?

By Sam Bari

During the Colonial period in Newport, Quakers filed com-plaints about the inhumane treat-ment of slaves in transit because they were forced to eat lobster several times a week.

Since then, the perception of lobsters has experienced dramatic change. Today, lobsters are con-sidered a delicacy, and lovers of the epicurean delight are willing to pay dearly for a taste of the delicious crustacean.

New England has a long tradi-tion of harvesting the finest lob-sters in the world. However, excessive fishing, change in habi-tat, disease, predation, and pollu-tion have taken their toll on the delicate balance of nature in the fisheries as a whole.

Consequently, in the eyes of the government, stringent regula-tory intervention has become a necessity.

The commercial fishermen who harvest lobsters for a living do not dispute that the industry has taken a downturn since the abundant years in the mid-1990s. They agree that the fishing indus-try needs to recover and nature must regain its balance if there is to be a future in commercial fish-ing. However, their reasons for the reduction in the lobster popu-lation does not necessarily concur with that of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fisheries and Wild-life. Nor do they agree on the methodology for helping the fish-ery to recover.

Mark Gibson, the deputy chief of the Fish and Wildlife Division, whose responsibility is adminis-trating the marine fisheries, explained that the downturn in the lobster population is complex and the result of a number of factors.

Gibson said “the lobster boon of the mid ‘90s was an anomaly and that we should not expect the numbers produced during those years to happen again any time soon, if ever.”

“The decline in catchable or legal size lobsters from 2000 to 2002 actually had its roots in 1995 and 1996, when the fishery had back-to-back years of what we call ‘poor settlement.’ That is two years of poor conditions for producing baby lobsters called ‘new settlers’ that float around and live in the plankton,” Gibson said.

The lobster boom of the mid ‘90s was a result of back-to-back years of good settlement in 1988 and ’89. The lobster industry is only one aspect of the recovery program. Fin fish have also been regulated, he noted.

The fishermen agree that the recovery of the fishery is a valid concern. However, they do not agree with the methodology of the regulatory agency in their recov-ery efforts. Some commercial fishermen, particularly those who harvest lobsters for a living, feel that they are being squeezed out of business by regulation.

When asked about the dramat-ic rate of attrition in the lobster fleet, Gibson was quick to cite productivity as the primary cause of reduction. The fleet of 283 licensed boats running a full com-plement of 800 traps was reduced to approximately 85 boats in two years.

“Many of these businesses were built around the boom years,” Gibson said. “Their cash flow was built around the boom years. They had expensive boats, expensive mortgages. They relied on a very high cash flow generat-ed from a lot of lobsters being caught in order to pay the rent. As soon as there was somewhat of a decline in abundance, those peo-ple fell out. They have to do something else. They have to diversify, or go out of business and find another occupation. Fishermen who built their busi-nesses on a more modest level — they had a boat paid for, they did-n’t have those great expenses — they made it because there is still a sufficient number of lobsters to meet their revenue needs. There has been great attrition with the high flyers. We’ve documented that. Those people have been weeded out due to lack of produc-tivity.”

Gibson also responded to the question about change in legisla-tion that made obtaining a lobster license more difficult.

He justified the change by say-ing, “Primarily because at the state legislature was concerned about the level of effort being deployed in not just the lobster fishery but in all fisheries. The General Assembly revised the licensing laws and said that in this department, the department direc-tor has to file regulations every year and develop management plans every year that specify by rule how many licenses can be issued in different fishery sectors. Those rules have to have a basis in resource status. State law right now prohibits us from having over-fished resources. We have to rebuild depleted fish stock.”

When asked if he believes the lobster is over fished, he said, “Yeah. It is. Not to the extent it was before, but it is.”

Fishermen claim that the rules also restrict the number of natural lobster predators that can be caught, like striped bass and tautog. Gibson responded by say-ing, “Those fish are also bound by the same laws. We can-not over fish the predators either.”

Although the lobstermen believe that striped bass and tautog are in abundance, Gibson disagreed. “We believe that striped bass are not in over-abun-dance. We believe that striped bass have been rebuilt to the level they should be. State and federal law requires us to rebuild all the fishery resources to their appro-priate levels,” he said. “Now we are emphasizing ecosystem man-agement to rebuild all of the fish stocks simultaneously and of course let nature figure out at what level of balance they can coexist.”

While the rebuilding programs are being implemented, lobster-men feel that they are being regu-lated into obscurity.

“In 2001, when they (the DEM) told us that we had to cut down on the number of lobsters taken, I only caught lobsters for personal use that year,” said Todd Lander, a commercial fisherman from North Kingstown for over 15 years. “I thought that was the right thing to do. However, I fished part time commercially in 2002 and 2003. When I applied to renew my license in 2004, I was told that the number of traps I could run would be based on my productivity over the previous three years. My productivity was way down for this period. For this, I was punished. The number of traps I can run was reduced from 800 to 42. I can’t make a liv-ing on 42 traps. They put me out

of business.”

Todd Lander is not alone. A number of lobstermen were forced to find other jobs because they could no longer afford to fish for a living.

Rob DeMasi, a Rhode Island commercial fisherman for over two decades, believes that the state control of a limited access fishery sets a dangerous prece-dent. “We have no assurances that the fishery will ever be open to new blood again,” DeMasi said.

Lander and Jerry Carvalho, a commercial fisherman in Rhode Island for over three decades, agree.

“They won’t tell us at what level of recovery will be sufficient for the fishery to be given open access, or if they will ever, in fact, open the fishery to new licensees,” DeMasi continued. “Right now, the only way a new person can enter the industry is if an active license holder wants to sell his business and license. That person is required to go to the DEM with his buyer and relin-quish his license. They will sell the license to the buyer when he purchases the business.

“With the number of active licenses being fewer and fewer each year, soon those licenses will be so valuable that any person wanting to enter the business will not be able to afford to buy one. It’s not right,” Demasi said.

“We do not take offense to reg-ulations for conservation purpos-es,” However, legislation that gives one person the right to fish while another person can’t, is dis-criminatory,” Lander said.

“As far as we are concerned, this legislation is unconstitution-al. The Rhode Island Constitution states that we have a right to an open fishery,” Carvalho pointed out.

“It is our right to know that upon recovery, the fishery will be open to anyone who wants to par-ticipate. We also deserve to know what that recovery level is,” DeMasi said.

“The New England fishing industry is a vital element in the fabric of the community,” DeMasi continued.

“It is a way of life that is steeped in tradition, with a rich heritage that helped build the economy of the region. We believe that Mark Gibson and his colleagues are sincere in their efforts and are working very hard to help the fishery to recover. However, the state and federal governments must keep in mind that not only the fishery needs to recover. The fishermen need to recover too,” he said.

This is the second story in a three part series. The final install-ment: “The future of the Rhode Island fishery and lobster indus-try.”

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