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Lobstermen Can Earn More with Fewer Traps

For lobstermen, harvesting can be summed up in two words: size and traps. Now, a new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution finds that lobstermen can earn more with fewer traps.

PORTLAND, Maine — For lobstermen, harvesting can be summed up in two words: size and traps.

If lobsters in their traps are either too big or too small, the lobstermen toss the crustaceans back into the water. They credit this method with record harvests and healthy lobster stocks.

Now, a new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution challenges that wisdom, finding that lobstermen can earn more with fewer traps.

Dick Allen, a former lobstermen from Rhode Island who helped with the study, said he expected skepticism. Making more money with fewer traps defies conventional wisdom, but makes sense to him.

"If you can catch the same amount with less effort, without catching them repeatedly and throwing them back, you can make more money and still protect the resource," he said.

Allen said the current method wastes time, diesel fuel and expensive bait.

"It is insanity," he said.

Nonetheless, implementing the suggestions in Maine would be a tough sell.

Maine fishermen are coming off another record year in which the value of the catch climbed to nearly $290 million in 2005, according to preliminary data.

The Maine lobster industry has been enjoying unprecedented success since the early 1990s, when the catch broke 30 million pounds. The annual catch first exceeded 40 million pounds in 1997, and it topped 50 million pounds two years after that. In 2002, the harvest rose to 63.6 million pounds, and the 2004 catch topped 70 million pounds.

Maine lobstermen believe their conservation techniques are part of the reason behind their success. They've set a minimum size standard to let juveniles grow to maturity and a maximum size limit to protect large lobsters, which are important for broodstock.

They are also required to cut a v-notch into the tails of egg-bearing females, making them off limits. Maine also has imposed trap limits with a current maximum of 800.

The Woods Hole study concludes that the strict size limits could be relaxed if lobstermen were willing to further reduce the number of traps they plunk into coastal waters each summer.

Allen teamed up with Hauke Kite-Powell at the Institution's Marine Policy Center, and, together, they tweaked a computer model of the lobster fishery created at the University of Rhode Island.

They tested various scenarios. Most of the time, total landings remained the same even though the number of traps was reduced, reducing fishermen's costs, Kite-Powell said.

The focus of the study, funded by a $40,000 grant from The Island Foundation in Massachusetts, was on the lobster fishery south of Cape Cod. Allen noted that southern New England lobstermen were riding a wave of big landings in the late 1990s similar to Maine's before their fishery collapsed.

Given Maine's success in recent years, it's hard to make an argument for change, said Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.

"I think we've got a very sustainable fishery, just as we're doing it now," Bayer said. "We're doing all of the right things."

Source: Associated Press

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