Local lobstermen brace for three-month closure

Dickie Sawyer of RK Sawyer and Sons lobsters in Groton stacks lobster traps Tuesday on the pier at his Jupiter Point Road business. Sawyer, who fishes about 1,250 traps in Long Island Sound, says he may be the only lobsterman to welcome the closure of the Sound fishery - because of the high cost of fishing and the low, post-Labor Day price of lobster.
Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day Dickie Sawyer of RK Sawyer and Sons lobsters in Groton stacks lobster traps Tuesday on the pier at his Jupiter Point Road business. Sawyer, who fishes about 1,250 traps in Long Island Sound, says he may be the only lobsterman to welcome the closure of the Sound fishery - because of the high cost of fishing and the low, post-Labor Day price of lobster.

The state's lobstermen are preparing for the start Sunday of the Long Island Sound fishery's first-ever seasonal closure, when their traps will be out of the water until Nov. 28.

"None of us are sure what we're going to do for three months without working," said Michael Theiller of Waterford, who keeps his lobster boat in New London. "It's going to be a bit difficult."

Theiller, vice president of the Connecticut Lobstermen's Association, and Stonington lobsterman Michael Grimshaw, president of the Southern New England Fishermen & Lobstermen's Association, both said they understand that the closure is an attempt to help the Sound's depleted lobster populations rebuild. They're just not sure it will make any difference.

"I'm not sure it's going to do anything," said Grimshaw, who will spend part of the three-month closure on one of his two boats fishing in unaffected federal waters outside the Sound, where he also holds a lobstering license, and to have and recover from knee surgery. Both he and Theiller expect they'll have to lay off two crewmen each during the closure.

The closure, while difficult, comes at a time when lobstering isn't all that profitable, Grimshaw said. Wholesale prices for lobster is now about $4.50 per pound. With high prices for fuel plus crew wages, wholesale prices need to be $5 to $6 a pound for a decent return, he said.

David Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there are about 120 active commercial lobster licenses, but most of the lobstermen are part-time. There are also 225 recreational licenses. The closure also affects recreational lobstering with traps and scuba diving, he said.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission required the state to take steps to reduce the total lobster harvest by 10 percent in 2013 in an effort to rebuild the southern New England lobster stock. The timing of the closure was requested by lobstermen to coincide with the drop in wholesale prices after Labor Day, and when the catch tends to be the smallest.

"This was a compromise," Simpson said. "Nobody is expecting a 10 percent reduction to turn around the stock. The only hope for this fishery is if we leave more reproductive stock. This is a very modest, last-ditch effort."

The fishery has been in decline for the last 15 years, attributed to factors such as warming waters due to climate change that stresses lobsters, pesticide residues and diseases. Both Grimshaw and Theiller also contend that predation of young lobsters by striped bass, scup and other fish species that are overabundant in the Sound also are preventing the population from rebuilding.

"Predation is part of it," Simpson agreed.

He said many of the remaining lobstermen are expected to take advantage of an exemption in the closure that will allow them to keep their lobster traps in the water baited for whelk. About 180 whelk licenses have been issued by the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the fishery through its Aquaculture Division.

Grimshaw, however, said there is not a significant population of whelk, also called conch, in the eastern Sound, and there are already too many vying for the large shellfish.

"The conch fishery is exploited," he said.

Under the new regulations, lobstermen have until Sept. 21 to have all their lobster gear out of the water but cannot keep any lobsters caught in the traps after Sunday. Traps can be rebaited and set one week before the fishery reopens Nov. 28.

j.benson@theday.com

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