Thursday, April 6, 2017
SOME NEVER LEARN
Southern New England lobster have been in trouble for a fairly long time.
Back in 2009, a benchmark stock assessment found that
“Current abundance of the [southern New England] stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000. Recruitment has remained low in [southern New England] since 1998. Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”
The situation was dire enough that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American Lobster Technical Committee issued a report titled “Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock”, which recommended that
“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [southern New England] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the [Technical Committee] now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area. The [Technical Committee] acknowledges the severity of this recommendation and understands the catastrophic effects on the fishery participants, support industries, and coastal communities. This recommendation provides the maximum likelihood to rebuild the stock in the foreseeable future to an abundance level that can support a sustainable long-term fishery.”
It’s hardly surprising that such recommendation was not readily accepted by lobster fishermen. However, a peer review panel generally agreed with the Technical Committee’s conclusions; although the panel members were not unanimous in their support for a moratorium, all agreed that harvest needed to be sharply curtailed, with no less than a 50% reduction in landings being required.
Industry-friendly members of ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board refused to impose such a steep reduction. After more than a year of debate, the Management Board finally decided to reduce landings of southern New England lobster by a mere 10%, and didn’t require states to adopt measures that would achieve even that modest reduction until 2013.
Given such slow and ineffective action, it’s hardly surprising that the southern New England lobster stock continued to decline. A new benchmark stock assessment, released in 2015, contained the dire message that, largely because of warming waters and perhaps other environmental conditions,
“The [southern New England] stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators…It is believed the offshore area of [southern New England] depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits. Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe 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. [emphasis added]”
Despite such warning, ASMFC did not rush to reduce lobster landings. Some members of ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board wanted to move quickly after receiving the assessment, such as Dennis Abbot, the proxy for New Hampshire’s Legislative Appointee, who noted that
“Fifteen years ago they told us that the house was starting to burn and we ought to something about it; and we’re so many years down the road and we have a raging forest fire or house fire going, and we’re going to go off and think about it again.”
However, most favored taking a slower, more deliberative approach before taking action. At its May 2016 meeting, the Management Board spent a lot of time trying to balance the need to halt, or at least slow, the stock’s decline with the desire to maintain a viable lobster fishery. In the end, it decided to move forward with an addendum “to address stock declines in [southern New England] by lowering fishing mortality and increasing egg production.” The measures included in such addendum, whatever they might prove to be, would presumably far less restrictive than a full moratorium, and would not have to be fully implemented until 2019.
The lobsters wouldn’t be getting much help at any time soon, but at least managers were moving forward with some sort of plan. Finally, in January of this year, ASMFC released the Draft Addendum XXV to Amendment 3 to the American Lobster Fishery Management Plan, which contemplated three ways to achieve the Management Board’s goals—increasing the minimum size, reducing the number of traps fished and shortening the fishing season—which might be used either individually or in some combination.
Given that the southern New England lobster stock was in a state of continuing collapse, the measures proposed in the Addendum were relatively mild—arguably too mild to meaningfully benefit the stock. Even so, they met with substantial opposition.
Most of the opposition came from lobstermen who, like a lot of fishermen in a lot of different fisheries, feel victimized by the regulatory process. Despite the sharp drop in lobster abundance, they view regulations as an attack on their livelihood, rather than a means to possibly restore the stock and provide more product for the fishermen to harvest.
However, some of the opposition was more calculated and more mercenary. Perhaps the best example of that may be provided by a letter written by the Director of Business Development of a substantial seafood company, who urged the lobster industry to oppose Addendum XXV. He wrote
“The [Addendum] proposes to increase the minimum size allowable from 3 3/8’s inches to 3 ½ inches, a measure that a client of mine asserts will create a 6 to 7 million dollar shortfall in his annual sales—and he isn’t the largest chain in New England...
“This proposal is wrongheaded—and the decrease in the harvest of saleable lobsters will be enormous…”
The letter doesn’t seem to give any thought at all to the sort of “shortfall in…annual sales” that his clients would suffer if the southern New England lobster stock fell into deeper collapse or, perhaps, disappeared altogether.
Because if he thinks that “the decrease in the harvest of saleable lobsters will be enormous” if Addendum XXV is put into place, he should really be thinking about how much the harvest of saleable lobsters would decline if there were no southern New England lobsters at all…
To be fair, the letter’s author suggests other management measures that, in his view, would work better than those in the Addendum. The problem is that the management measures that he would suggest—releasing lobsters that weighed more than 4 ½ or 5 pounds, and v-notching females—wouldn’t, by his own admission, reduce landings—“the harvest of saleable lobsters”—by a significant amount, and thus wouldn’t do much to stop the decline in abundance.
And right now, stopping that decline, so that there will be lobsters around to replenish the stock should environmental conditions improve, is the single most important thing that managers can do.
And in order to do that, harvest and sales are going to have to be cut in the short term.
That’s a truth, applicable to many fisheries, that some people just can’t seem to learn.
But they really ought to. Because if they continue to emphasize harvest and sales, rather than the health of the lobster stock, and if managers keep worrying more about the lobster fishermen than about the lobsters themselves, we could well end up with no southern New England lobsters at all.
And at that point, everyone will learn just how unprofitable having nothing can be.