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New England Leads Fight For Larger Lobster Catch Limit To Protect Harvest

August 17, 1987

BOSTON (AP) _ Northern Atlantic lobsters are being overfished and the Reagan administration should increase the legal catch size to protect the shellfish and thousands of jobs, say New England officials and lobstermen.

Coastal pollution is blamed for some of the problem, but fisheries officials say the multimillion dollar industry’s biggest problem is the harvest of female lobsters which reach legal size before they reproduce.

″There’e no imminent disaster looming or anything but it seems wise from the view of being cautious that we increase the catch size,″ said Douglas Marshall, executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council.

The council has proposed to the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service that federal regulators lengthen the catch size an eighth of an inch in interstate waters.

Coastal states from North Carolina to Maine set a 3 3/16-inch body shell size as the legal minimum in their territorial waters, which extend to three miles offshore.

The New England proposal before the Commerce Department asks the federal government to increase the catch size in interstate waters - from three miles to 200 miles offshore - from 3 3/16 inches to 3 5/16 inches over five years and calls on the states to adopt parallel restrictions for their waters.

It also would prohibit lobstermen from harvesting so-called V-notch lobsters, a name derived from a longtime practice of Maine lobstermen of notching the tails of egg-bearing female lobsters.

Maine currently prohibits harvesting V-notched lobsters but the restrictions do not apply if the shellfish migrate outside of Maine’s territorial waters.

Biologists said the seemingly minute increase should substantially raise the number of female lobsters which reproduce before harvest, especially in northern waters where females reproduce at a later stage of development.

″It is going to at least allow a few more females to spawn,″ said Bruce Estrella, senior biologist for the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Division. ″At this point we’ll take what we can get. I don’t think there’s a lobster biologist along the coast who isn’t concerned.″

Estrella said lobster landings in Massachusetts, the country’s No. 2 producer of the shellfish, totaled 9,953,141 pounds in 1986, nearly double the total of a decade ago.

″There’s no question we’re overfishing the resource,″ said Ed Blackmore, president of the 1,000-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Maine’s annual lobster catch, the nation’s largest, hovered near 20 million pounds in recent years. The industry is the state’s third-largest employer.

While Maine’s lobster harvest has remained stable, Blackmore said the state’s lobstermen have had to double or triple the time and resources they put into the catch, driving up costs for the industry and consumer.

New York and New Jersey have objected to some provisions of the proposal, but Borden and other New England sponsors of the plan said they expected federal approval of the plan, which could take affect by November.

It takes about seven years for a lobster to reach legal size.

The states should boost efforts to stem pollution in harbors, where most female lobsters spawn, which has added to decline of the population, Estrella said.

″We know from the acreage that is closed to commercial and recreational shellfishing that coastal pollution has really skyrocketed,″ Estrella said. ″There’s no question that pollution is a problem and can cause mortality in certain conditions.

″Yet landings in Massachusetts have approximately doubled since the early 1970s,″ he said. ″It makes you wonder where all the harvest is coming from.″