New research suggests that the U.S. lobster industry could place fewer traps in the water and still gain just as much profit. And that finding could play a role in the debate over what should be required of Maine lobstermen to reduce entanglements with endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The study was published this week in the peer-reviewed Marine Policy Journal. Lead researcher Hannah Myers is a graduate student at the University of Alaska's College of Fisheries and Ocean Studies. She took a close look at landings and other data from lobster-fishing territory that crosses the international Hague Line between Nova Scotia and Maine.
"We found that Canadian fishers in the Gulf of Maine caught about the same amount of lobster using seven and a half times less effort than Maine fishers on the U.S. side," she says.
The researchers found that while the Canadians spent fewer days at sea and fished fewer traps, the traps they pulled had almost four times as many lobsters in them.
Myers cautions that there are a number of variables that could change the picture from one fishing zone or season to the next, but the evidence shows that reduced effort does not necessarily mean less success. In fact, when the researchers looked at an area off Massachusetts that over the last decade has been periodically closed to protect right whales, they discovered that annual lobster landings actually increased there.
"As far as why catch might actually be higher with a closure, there's a lot of biological reasons for that and other variables that confound it, but in some cases it might be analogous to farmers allowing a field to lie fallow in order to improve productivity later on," Myers says.
The report suggests that in areas where lobster fishing is not as efficient as it could be, new whale protection rules that reduced effort could boost lobster abundance and fishermen's profits.
Federal regulators and courts are now considering measures such as closures, lower trap limits, or limits on the number of ropes allowed per trap.
Maine's Commissioner of the Department of Marine resources and the Maine Lobstermen's Association had no immediate comment.