Local lobstermen debate their options

Old Lyme - Shutting down the lobster season for a few months of the year would be the fairest way to reduce the lobster harvest in Long Island Sound by 10 percent, local lobstermen told state officials Thursday.

"Either close it in June or close it in September and October, because that way it would affect everybody the same way," Challen Young of Waterford said during a hearing on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries' Commission's proposal. "The closed season is the way to go."

Alternative plans to achieve the 10 percent cut by reducing the size at which lobsters can be legally harvested, Young said, would disproportionately impact offshore fishermen who tend to catch larger lobsters compared to those who stay closer to shore. Closing in June or in early fall, he added, would be fair because it would impact both full- and part-time lobstermen.

Dave Simpson, director of Marine Fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, led the meeting on behalf of the fisheries commission. He explained that the commission would be deciding in November among three options: no action; enacting regulations to reduce the harvest by 10 percent; or closing the southern New England lobster fishery entirely for five years.

Simpson proposed the 10 percent reduction at an earlier meeting of the fisheries panel, he said, as a more gradual and humane way of helping lobster stocks rebuild without "just starving everyone out" with the five-year closure. Compliance with the actions of the commission is mandatory for member states, Simpson added. If adopted, the 10 percent reduction would take effect in 2013.

Simpson said comments from the hearing, one of three on the proposed reduction, would help him represent to the commission the way to enact the reduction that would be the least harmful to the state's remaining lobstermen. There are about 130 active lobstermen in the state. A total of 460 hold commercial lobster permits, but many of those are inactive.

The reduction is being sought because lobster populations in southern New England are significantly below what the fisheries commission considers a healthy level, and have been for the last 10 years or more. Lobster populations in Long Island Sound, coastal Rhode Island and southern coastal Massachusetts are estimated at 14.7 million adults, compared to the target level of 25.4 million adults.

About 15 southeastern Connecticut lobstermen attended the hearing. Among them was Richie Maderia of Stonington, who said that as soon as lobstermen adapt to one set of changes, new ones are adopted.

"You can change it today, and next year it's going to be something else," he said. "It doesn't stop."

Simpson, who said he expects there will be further reductions given the depleted state of the lobster population, described the 10 percent proposal as an interim step.

"I can promise you there will be another one," he said. "Everyone knows this resource is in big trouble. There's this question of, 'Do we just fish it down to nothing?' Or do we try to rebuild this fishery? That's really our choice. Here we are kind of in the gutter trying to keep it from collapsing entirely."

Simpson assured the lobstermen that if the population rebuilds, as fluke and other species have after harvest limits were imposed, the restrictions on the fishery would be eased.

j.benson@theday.com

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