2011-03-31 / Front Page

Lobstering rules impact livelihoods

By Ken Shane

Christopher Lutyens is a Rhode Island lobsterman. He has lived in Jamestown for 20 years, after spending 13 years lobstering in Newport, but he has been fishing since he was a child in Maine. He has seen the boom in lobster fishing in the late 1990s, and the collapse of the inshore fishery in the early part of the 21st century. Now, new regulations are being proposed which have the potential to put an end to his way of life and that of the entire Rhode Island lobster fleet.

“If they take away anything more than a token, then they are signing the death warrant of the fishery because economics are dictating as they are in a lot of business,” Lutyens said. “Operating expenses and overhead have skyrocketed, but prices for our product have plummeted due to the poor economy and lack of demand.”

The dispute over the proposed regulations pits Southern New England lobstermen against a morass of government bodies that includes the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The issues are complex, but the battle comes down to the government contention that based on its scientific findings, the Southern New England lobster fishery has been over-exploited and needs to be more drastically regulated if it is to survive.

Based on that contention, further reductions of 50 to 75 percent in legal lobster landings have been proposed for Near Shore Area 2. These reductions could be achieved by reducing the number of traps permitted or increasing the size of the vents that allow juvenile or undersized lobsters to escape the traps.

Area 2 stretches approximately from Nantucket 45 miles south, and west to a point south of Long Island. It encompasses all of Rhode Island Sound, all of Long Island Sound, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and waters south of Rhode Island Sound – therefore, a number of states would be affected by any new regulations.

The lobstermen’s response is that the government’s science is flawed and that such a reduction would be tantamount to putting an end to the fishery. They estimate that more than 200 lobstermen would be driven out of business. Lobster fishing is a $10 million a year industry in Rhode Island, a substantial percentage of the state’s $65 million fishing industry.

The lobstermen claim that while the lobster population has indeed been affected by warmer water temperatures, shell disease, and an overabundance of predatory fish, the fishery shows signs of being on its way back to prosperity.

Lutyens points to the most recent trawl surveys conducted by the University of Rhode Island. Since scientists know where the lobsters will be at any given time of the year, they make the same trawl at the same time of each year, and then they count. The data from the latest trawl survey shows approximately the same figures that were shown in the 1980s, a time when the government considered the resource to be healthy.

“The lobster stock is pre-ice age,” Lutyens said. “They come from the pueblo communities in the walls of the submarine canyons off southern New England’s continental shelf. The population is cyclical in nature, and we’ve seen these cycles over the years. The fishing gets better, and then it falls off. We have a few bad years and then it turns and starts to get better again.”

Last summer, officials proposed a five-year ban on lobster fishing in Area 2, but relented after protests by the lobstermen. Mark Gibson, the deputy chief of fish and wildlife for the state Department of Environmental Management, has made it clear that an overall shutdown of the fishery is still an option.

Steve Seymour is a lobsterman who lives in North Kingstown and keeps his boat at East Ferry. He has been lobstering for 16 years.

“I think that they should leave us alone,” Seymour said. “We’ve done enough, far above everybody else as far as management is concerned. They keep trying to nibble more and more every year, or every other year. There’s not really a need for it.”

“There is no new blood coming up,” he continued, “and a lot of the older guys are getting out of the business. There’s no reason for them to try and cut our traps in half. The business is going that way anyway.”

Seymour reports that the Jamestown lobster fleet has shrunk from seven boats to just two in the last nine years. According to him, three boats that fish in Area 2 have been sold in the last month and will be fishing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Lobster Conservation Management Team, an advisory group of local fishermen, has voted to ask the Atlantic States Marine Fishery to refrain from adding any new regulations regarding the lobster fishery.

No decision on the proposed regulations was made at a recent hearing in Washington, D.C. Another hearing has been scheduled for August.

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