STONINGTON, Maine — For the past five years, researchers at Penobscot East Resource Center have used egg-bearing female lobsters to hatch tens of thousands of larval lobsters that they later released into local waters.
This year, however, the nonprofit organization has decided to suspend its hatchery operations, PERC officials announced Monday. The effort has been supported financially largely by towns on eastern Penobscot and western Blue Hill bays, but the sluggish economy has made funds scarce, they said.
Officials at the center said their research efforts with the hatchery have been successful enough that they’ve decided to use the money they have for new projects. They never set out to be a permanent source of juvenile lobsters, according to PERC Associate Director Veronica Young. She said they mainly wanted to figure out whether they could raise lobsters and then release them into depleted areas as a way to boost the fishery.
“That’s sort of mission accomplished,” Young said Monday. “It really was very effective.”
PERC officials said they were able to raise more than 100,000 lobsters each summer, but they acknowledged that lobsters seem to be plentiful throughout the state, even if the price fishermen get for their catch remains low. According to statistics compiled by Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine fishermen brought ashore 75.6 million pounds of lobster in 2009, the highest annual landings figure ever recorded in Maine. Most marketable lobsters caught in Maine weigh between 1 and 2 pounds.
At a cost of $100,000 a year to run the hatchery, PERC officials decided the hatchery’s operating funds could be better used elsewhere.
“This is a big decision for us,” Robin Alden, PERC’s executive director, said Monday in a prepared statement. “The hatchery was our first project in service of our community, but in tough economic times you have to be smart about using funds.”
According to Young, PERC plans to use more of its operating funds on groundfish research. She said PERC has purchased a groundfish permit and plans to use it to conduct groundfish surveys off the Maine coast. Fish caught under PERC’s permit will go toward a community-supported fishery program, and all relevant data will be shared with PERC researchers and government regulators, she said.
George Lapointe, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Monday that the question of whether depleted lobster populations could be restored with hatcheries is worth looking into. He said the high cost of operating such hatcheries, in Stonington and elsewhere, has been a significant drawback, especially when the health of the resource seems to be fine without them.
“They were trying to look at the evaluation [of hatchery efforts] to see whether it worked,” Lapointe said. “To their credit, they tried to answer that question. [But] that question remains unanswered.”
Lapointe said he thinks it is “smart” for PERC to commit more of its resources toward groundfish research. Clearly, groundfish populations have been depleted and remain depleted in the Gulf of Maine, he said.
“There’s a lot more growth potential” in restoring groundfish stocks, he said.
Steve Robbins III, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, said Monday that even if the hatchery did not provide much of a boost in overall landings, it has served other valuable functions.
It has helped establish stronger connections between the local fishery, the surrounding communities and researchers, Robbins said. It also has helped draw people to Stonington, he said, and has helped the local fishing community develop a better understanding of lobster science.
“What we haven’t done well over the years is sitting back and trying to understand the animal better,” Robbins said. “It’s been a good thing.”