ELLSWORTH, Maine — An unprecedented step for the East Coast lobster fishery could be taken Thursday if regulators believe it is warranted by the poor state of the resource in southern New England.
The Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission is meeting in Warwick, R.I., at 10 a.m. to consider whether there should be a five-year moratorium on lobster fishing south of Cape Cod.
Such a moratorium likely wouldn’t have much of an impact for fishermen in the Gulf of Maine, where more than 90 percent of East Coast lobster is caught, according to officials. Despite the declining lobster population in southern New England and farther south, the resource in the Gulf of Maine is believed to be relatively healthy.
Maine Department of Marine Resources has estimated that more than 75 million pounds of lobster was brought ashore in Maine in 2009. The value of the 2009 catch, the highest volume ever officially recorded in Maine, was $220 million.
The lobster population of southern New England peaked in the late 1990s at around 35 million lobsters and is now believed to be around 15 million. Slightly more than 115 million lobsters are believed to be in the Gulf of Maine.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for DMR, said Wednesday that the decline of lobster stocks in southern New England is of interest in Maine because of the potential for a similar decline happening in the gulf. The decline in southern New England appears to be a combination of many factors, including water temperature, disease, possible pollution and overfishing in the 1990s, he said.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Stockwell said. “We’ve got a problem that has gotten worse over time [in southern New England].”
The situation south of Cape Cod is similar to the decline of other fisheries farther north, in which not enough was done to halt sharp drops in populations, he said.
“You can use urchins as an example here in Maine,” Stockwell said.
The DMR official said he was not sure whether the ASMFC might make a decision Thursday. It is possible the commission will table the matter until it meets again in early August, he said.
“There will be a lot of folks there with a lot to say,” Stockwell said of Thursday’s meeting.
Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Council, said Wednesday that a five-year moratorium likely would have little if any effect on Maine’s fishery, mainly because so few lobster are being caught in southern New England.
Maine fishermen already have to deal with public misimpressions about the health of the resource because of the situation south of Cape Cod, he said. Trying to put a positive spin on the issue, Somers said a moratorium could provide an opportunity to inform consumers that the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine is robust, and that steps are being taken to address the depleted stocks farther south.
But there’s no doubt that a five-year ban on lobstering in southern New England would have a significant impact not just on the surviving fishermen, but possibly on the future of lobster fishing in the region, he said.
“It’s not an easy thing to do to say ‘You can’t do this anymore,’” Somers said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.