Lobster board steers clear of five-year fishing ban

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The American Lobster Management Board (ALMB) of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided last week at a meeting in Warwick, R.I., to put aside a proposed five-year ban on lobster fishing in waters south of Cape Cod, as recommended by the Lobster Technical Committee. The proposed ban would have put Vineyard lobstermen out of business until 2016 (see “Five-year moratorium would halt Martha’s Vineyard lobstering” in the July 8 edition of The Times).

Instead, the ALMB voted to accept a motion to evaluate three alternative options: reduce the region’s trap allocation by 50 percent, by 25 percent, or maintain the status quo. A committee charged with investigating these alternatives will report to the ASMFC in November. The five-year moratorium is temporarily off the table, but the full ASMFC could still vote to impose it.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut commented to the media, “Jobs and a New England way of life are on the line, and I am pleased that ASMFC has for the moment rejected a ban and instead ordered a new study on lobsters. I have heard over and over that the numbers in ASMFC’s study do not match what lobstermen are seeing on the water. With an entire industry and families in potential peril, a ban would have been unacceptable.”

Menemsha lobsterman Wes Brighton attended part of the Warwick meeting and told The Times in an email: “It seemed apparent that the Technical Committee’s report was released prematurely. I was surprised to find out that the paper hadn’t been peer-reviewed prior to its release to the public. I think the consensus was that they had let the proverbial cat out of the bag before taking more recent data and fishermen observation into account.”

Woods Hole biologist and Boston University professor Jelle Atema has begun working with Menemsha lobstermen to build a case for a smaller management zone closer to the Vineyard. Mr. Brighton comments, “[The ALMB] one-size-fits-all approach . . . appeared draconian and statistically weak. Treating inshore Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey the same way as Vineyard Sound and the outer waters out to the continental shelf, as equal stock environments, seems to be incredibly inaccurate.”

Mr. Brighton concedes that there are challenges with current lobster stocks and worries that low stocks in inshore waters will induce lobstermen from those areas to come to Vineyard waters to fish, increasing the pressure on Vineyard stocks.

“The unfortunate part of all this,” Mr. Brighton concludes, “is that many people have been confused to think that lobsters are in trouble and have chosen other options for their vacation meals . . . . Now that the council is retracing their steps, it is important for the public to know that buying a lobster from the local market is a responsible thing to do.”