Fewer Traps Logic

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 6:07 p.m.

The recent recommendation from regional fisheries regulators to substantially cut the herring catch — a major source of lobster bait — is another piece of evidence pointing toward the benefits of allowing fewer lobster traps.

The New England Fisheries Management Council last week recommended that the region’s annual herring catch be dropped to 106,000 metric tons. Scientists had suggested a steeper reduction to 90,000 metric tons. The National Marine Fisheries Service will issue a final decision in coming weeks.

The reduction is needed to allow the herring population to grow. In addition to being used for bait, herring are an important food source for larger fish and marine mammals. If herring stocks fall too low, the populations of other commercially important fish could also decline, harming other aspects of the fishing industry and the marine environment in general.

The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine has researched using alternative bait and using less herring. Both show promise.

A more direct route could be to reduce the number of traps lobstermen are allowed to have in the water. Now, they can have up to 800 traps.

Tending so many traps also requires lobstermen to spend more on diesel, the price of which has fluctuated, but is trending up.

Lobster prices have been low for months, in part due to the recession, which has reduced demand. The most direct way to address this glut of lobster on the market is to stop putting more lobster on the market, a difficult proposition for lobstermen with mounting bills to pay.

As other countries have found, however, using fewer traps can be lucrative. Most lobstermen in Australia fish 100 traps or fewer and catch larger lobster than those in Maine.

On the flip side, researchers have recently found that efforts to reduce fishing — to protect fish populations — often backfire. This is simply because fishermen like to fish.

A recent study of an attempt by officials on the island nation of Kiribati highlighted this problem. To conserve fish around the island, fishermen were paid to harvest coconuts and produce coconut oil. Because they made good money with the coconuts, the men had more time to fish and the fish population actually declined.

“It hit us like a bumper sticker saying ‘A bad day fishing is better than a good day working,’” Brown University researcher Sheila Walsh told National Public Radio.

Overcoming this mindset will be difficult. But restrictions on herring, the rising cost of diesel and other supplies, coupled with the depressed price for lobster point to the need for a new model. Fishing fewer traps could be the answer.

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