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Fisheries commission OKs ban on lobster catches for 11 weeks in fall

Beginning in 2013, the lobstering season in Long Island Sound will be closed for 11 weeks in the fall to reduce the catch and give the depleted shellfish population time to rebuild.

By a 6-3 vote Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved the seasonal closure along with other mechanisms meant to reduce the catch in four other areas of southern New England and coastal New Jersey. The actions were taken at the regional regulatory authority's quarterly meeting in Virginia.

David Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a voting member of the Atlantic states panel, said the goal is to reduce by 10 percent the number of lobsters taken commercially and recreationally. Long Island Sound lobstermen told DEEP officials in meetings leading up to the vote that they preferred a fall closure to other methods of achieving the 10 percent reduction, such as increasing the legal harvest size.

"This really will leave more lobsters in the population and reduce the number of people who fish that (late) run," Simpson said. The seasonal closure is likely to lead some lobstermen to wait until spring or summer to reset their traps rather than resume for the winter season, Simpson said.

There are four possible dates to begin the closure, from Sept. 3 to Sept. 15. The start date and other details will be decided after DEEP hears from lobstermen and others in meetings that will take place over the next year.

One of the new requirements is that lobstermen must remove all their traps within two weeks after the closure date, and will not be allowed to keep any lobsters removed from traps after that date.

Mike Theiler, vice president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen's Association, said this could pose a problem for him and others who planned to fish for conch during the 11 week lobstering hiatus. He and others already have turned to conch fishing to supplement their incomes.

"The big kicker is that we can't leave any pots in the water," said Theiler, a Waterford resident who keeps his boat in New London. Baited with horseshoe crab and set in different locations, lobster pots are used to catch conch, also called channeled whelk, Theiler said. Fish are typically used to bait lobster.

"We have to have something else to catch," Theiler said.

The conch fishery has grown in recent years, he said, as populations of the large snail have increased and markets have grown. Prices are averaging about $2 per pound. Conch is sold as scungilli for Italian dishes and also is popular in Asian markets.

Simpson said some of the conch caught in Long Island Sound is shipped to China and elsewhere abroad.

"It's a resource that's getting fished pretty hard, and it's completely unregulated," Simpson said. "It begs for some management."

Conch licenses are issued by the state Department of Agriculture's shellfish division, rather than DEEP, which regulates commercial and recreational fish species.

Simpson said that before the rules take effect, regulators will craft a way to ensure the new rules won't inadvertently hurt the conch fishery.

"We recognize the need to accommodate that fishery, but we also want to make sure people aren't using it as an excuse to leave pots in the water," he said.

Theiler said he and other Long Island Sound lobstermen believe their region was offered fewer choices for reaching the 10 percent reduction than other areas, and that the mechanisms selected for those areas are less harsh. They are considering appealing or seeking a revision of the new rules, he said.

"I have faith that the governor will look at this industry as a valued industry in the state and help keep us here," he said, adding that he also has appealed to the office of Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, for assistance.

The 10 percent reduction is intended to be the first of a series of actions meant to reduce the lobster harvest, as regulators seek to scale the fishery back to a level the resource can sustain, said Tina Berger, public affairs specialist for the commission. After a sharp dropoff in the late 1990s, lobster populations have not recovered to what fisheries experts consider a healthy level.

Statewide, there are about 130 active lobstermen, substantially fewer than before the decline in the lobster population. There are 460 commercial permit holders, but many of those are inactive.

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.

j.benson@theday.com

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