A Lesson From Lobsters

Charles Witek

In April 2010, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) American Lobster Technical Committee issued a report entitled “Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock”, which shocked lobster fishermen in the southern New England and mid-Atlantic regions when it stated that

“Since the release of the 2009 Assessment, additional monitoring information has been reviewed which documents that the reproductive potential and abundance of the [Southern New England] stock is continuing to fall lower than the data presented in the latest assessment. The [Atlantic Lobster Technical Committee] contends that the stock is experiencing recruitment failure caused by a combination of environmental drivers and continued fishing mortality…

“The southern New England stock is critically depleted and well below the minimum threshold abundance. Abundance indices are at or near time series lows, and this condition has persisted.”

The Technical Committee saw only one way to remedy the problem.

“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [the southern New England stock] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the Technical Committee now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area…”

A firestorm of protest erupted in the lobster fishing community.

If lobster had been a federally-managed species, subject to legally mandated conservation and rebuilding requirements, such protest would have been for naught. If the best available science said that a moratorium was needed to effect stock rebuilding, such moratorium would have been imposed.

But lobster is managed by ASMFC, not by federal managers. No law requires that ASMFC either rebuild overfished stocks or follow the best available science.

Thus, when a special meeting of ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board was called to consider rebuilding measures, the fishermen who attended opposed not only a moratorium, but any cuts at all, while the fisheries managers who made up the board were generally uncomfortable with the idea of closing the fishery. The board finally decided to examine three options, a 75% reduction, a 50% reduction and no reduction at all.

The moratorium recommended by the Technical Committee was taken completely off the table. However, the board did decide to request an independent review of the Technical Committee’s conclusions.

The resulting External Independent Peer Review was presented to ASMFC in October 2010. One of the reviewers, Dr. Michael C. Bell of the United Kingdom, wrote

“Environmental changes rather than fishing mortality are implicated in the recent stock decline and lower recruitment levels…However, the [Technical Committee] identifies fishing mortality as an impediment to rebuilding the stock. Given other pressures on larval production and successful settlement…removal of fishing mortality is the one opportunity available to managers to influence the likelihood of rebuilding the stock… [emphasis added]

“A five-year moratorium on the lobster harvest in [southern New England] is put forward by the [Technical Committee] as providing the highest likelihood of rebuilding the stock to target levels…On the basis of the analyses presented by the [Technical Committee], I would assess…the risk of failing to rebuild if the moratorium is not imposed as high[emphasis added]”

That conclusion was effectively endorsed by Dr. N. G. Hall of Australia, who said

“A moratorium on exploitation would be the most effective strategy to rebuild the stock.”

The third reviewer, Dr. Steward Frusher, also of Australia, did not endorse a moratorium, but he did support sharp reductions in harvest, writing

“This review does not support the conclusion that the Southern New England Lobster Fishery is experiencing recruitment failure. While recruitment failure is one possibility, overfishing is a stronger possibility…

“Irrespective of which scenario is correct, the current effort in the fishery is too high and is approximately 50% higher than when the abundance was a similar level in the early 1980s. A 50 – 75% reduction in effort is recommended immediately…”

It was pretty clear that nothing less than a 50% reduction in landings, and perhaps a full moratorium, was needed to rebuild the stock.

So at this point, it’s probably necessary to remind the reader that ASMFC is not required to rebuild overfished stocks.

Thus, at the American Lobster Management Board’s August 2011 meeting, it was perfectly fine for David Simpson, marine fisheries director for the State of Connecticut, to amend the proposed management plan so that only a 10% reduction in landings would be needed—even though such reduction would do nothing to rebuild the stock.

Bob Ross, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) representative to the Management Board, objected to the motion, perhaps because he was used to working with federal laws that required that stocks be rebuilt. Ross said

“I think a brief history here was initiation of a five-year moratorium that then ratcheted down to a 50 to 75 percent cut…

“Now we’ve gone from our board guidance of 50 to 75 percent and this one is proposing down to 10 percent. It clearly does not help the resource at all…”

But since ASMFC, unlike NMFS, isn’t legally required to actually help the resource, Ross’ objection went nowhere and, in February 2012, the 10 percent cut was officially adopted in Addendum XVII to Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster.

Today, more than five years after a moratorium was first recommended, we can read a new, peer-reviewed stock assessment that came out in August 2015.

It reports that

“the Southern New England stock is severely depleted and in need of protection.

“Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed. The [southern New England] stock is clearly overfished…It is believed that the offshore area of [southern New England] depends on nearshore settlement as the source of recruits. Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe that the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…[B]y any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment can be observed.”

For five years, ASMFC discussed American lobster, while failing to manage the resource. Today, southern New England lobster is worse off than when the process began.

So ASMFC will again try to draft a workable management plan. We can be sure that fishermen, trying to get the last drop of blood out of a sere and crumbling stone, will again do their best to delay any action, and keep reductions as small as they can.

I’d like to think that managers will overrule fishermen’s objections and follow the science this time, but given ASMFC’s freedom from legally-binding mandates, and the fact that some of the people sitting on its management boards have direct economic interests in the fisheries that they manage, I’m not particularly hopeful.

And that’s why, as the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is being considered in Congress, everyone concerned with the health of America’s marine resources must urge lawmakers to keep the law’s stock rebuilding provisions intact.

Right now, some members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries are working very hard to weaken the law’s requirements that prohibit overfishing and require the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks. They want to make the National Marine Fisheries Service work more like ASMFC.

They must not succeed.

For as the American lobster shows us, ASMFC often does not work at all.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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