Sunday, April 24, 2016


That such protection is needed is undoubtedly true.

However, the sort of protection that the editorial is seeking is a bit off the mark.

Apparently, Sweden is afraid of American lobsters invading its waters and outcompeting their European relatives, and is thus asking the European Union to ban the import of the New World crustaceans.

That has some of the good folks of Newburyport alarmed, causing their local paper to say that

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Massachusetts congressional delegation need to make their voices heard in the deepening dispute between Sweden and the American lobster industry.”
Concerns have apparently arisen because the American lobster, Homarus americanus, and the European lobster, Homarus gammerus, are closely related; in addition, the American lobster is larger.  One spokesman for the Swedish Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science expressed concern that the American lobster

“pose several potential risks for native species, competing for space and resources, they can interbreed with local species and produce hybrid species, which we don’t know will be viable or not.”
It’s hard to tell whether such concerns are valid or not.  Richard Wahle, a professor at the University of Maine, is not buying in, arguing

“Attempts to introduce American lobster elsewhere have failed.  A newly introduced lobster would face a gauntlet of different species that it has no experience with.”
Given the similarities between the ecosystems on both sides of the North Atlantic, it’s not clear how many truly different species an American lobster would encounter while visiting Swedish shores. 

While the species might be different, many would certainly be merely local variations on a very similar theme; the European pollack, Pollachius pollachius, and the American pollock, Pollachius virens, for example, may be different species, but perform about the same role in the ecosystem, and could be expected to react to lobster in about the same way.

On the other hand, a lobster would probably be in greater danger of being eaten by an Atlantic cod or Atlantic halibut in European waters than off New England, simply because European fisheries managers have done a better job of protecting such species in their local waters than New England fishery managers have done in waters under its jurisdiction.

The same thing that motivated folks in New England to turn a blind eye to declining cod and halibut stocks—the opportunity to make a good short-term profit—is motivating folks in New England to call for federal intervention in the lobster dispute today.  Exporting lobster to Europe is a big-money business; Canadian and United States fishermen ship over about $200 million in lobster each year.

Massachusetts is second only to Maine in the size of its lobster fishery, so right at this moment, it has a real interest in using federal leverage to keep European markets open to Bay State lobstermen.

Unfortunately, in the long term, there may be a far more compelling reason to get the federal government involved in the lobster fishery.  In southern New England, that fishery isn’t doing too well.

Right now, that’s probably too much of a concern for the lobstermen of Newburyport.  They’re fishing on lobster that belong to the recently consolidated Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine stock, which is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, and is at record-high abundance levels.

The southern New England stock, on the other hand, isn’t doing very well. 

American lobster are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service.  In 2015, ASMFC accepted the most recent American Lobster Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report for management purposes.  The following quote from that document just how dire the state of the southern New England stock of American lobster actually is.

“Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the SNE stock has clearly collapsed.  The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators.  Fishing mortality does not appear to be extremely high and this supports the conclusion that biological factors have contributed to bringing the stock to this point.  It is believed that offshore areas of SNE 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…It is noted that pre-recruits are not measured in the offshore surveys, so the effects of recruitment failure in the inshore would not be seen in the offshore until years later when the lobsters become available to the fishery and to surveys.  Hence, by any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment can be observed.  [emphasis added]”
As mentioned, American lobster are managed by ASMFC, through its American Lobster Management Board.  So, when faced with the above scientific advice, how did ASMFC’s Management Board react?

Certainly, not with urgency.  

Although the verbatim transcripts for Management Board meetings occurring after the benchmark stock assessment was released are not available at this time, perhaps due to recent problems with ASMFC’s website, a quick look at press releases issued by ASMFC since last August suggests that most of the Management Board’s time was spent drafting a new management plan for Jonah crab, a species frequently caught as bycatch in the offshore lobster fishery, rather than addressing the collapse of the southern New England stock.

In fact, the only mention of that imperiled stock comes in an August press release, which states that

“In response to the findings regarding the status of the SNE stock, the Board established a working group of Board and Technical Committee members to review the assessment and peer review findings and develop recommendations for Board consideration.”
Given the dearth of announcements since that point, one can safely assume that either the working group is still working, that it is still reviewing the assessment and/or developing recommendations, or that the Board is still considering any recommendations made.

And, one can also safely assume that as time ticks on while all that is happening, the southern New England stock of American lobster is continuing to collapse.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the current state of the stock is also no surprise. 

All the way back in April, 2010, ASMFC’s American Lobster Technical Committee issued the report “Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock.”  It warned that

“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 the condition has persisted.”
It advised that

“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…”
Provided with such dire advice, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission did…


As usual.
Well, that’s not completely true, because it did decide to reduce harvest by 10%.  However, it didn’t do so by such reliable means as, for example, a hard-poundage quota that would keep boats tied up to the dock, and away from the lobsters, once that quota was landed.

Doing that might hurt someone’s profits.

“Given the critically depleted condition of the SNE stock, the American Lobster Board approved Addenda XVII – XXII, which implement a suite of measures to reduce exploitation and allow the SNE stock to rebuild.  These measures include a v-notching program, trap reductions, closed seasons for certain areas, and a trap consolidation/transferability program.  Throughout 2014, the American Lobster Board monitored the monitored the progress of the SNE [Lobster Conservation Management Areas] in achieving the required 10% reduction in exploitation in order to address rebuilding…”
Some of the LCMA’s achieved the reduction and some did not, but even for those that succeeded, “success” was meaningless, because a 10% reduction in landings is a very different thing than a 5-year moratorium.  As the 2015 benchmark stock assessment showed, ASMFC’s minimal actions did nothing to improve the health of the stock.

And that’s why the Newburyport Daily Times got the story wrong, but the headline right, when it declared “U.S. Needs to Protect Lobster Fishery.”

For the states have demonstrated that they lack the ability and/or the will to protect it themselves.

If the southern New England stock of American lobster is to be rebuilt, at least to the extent that oceanographic conditions allow, a federal fisheries management plan will be needed.

Unlike ASMFC, federal fisheries managers, acting pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are required by law to rebuild overfished stocks promptly, and within a time certain.  Federal fisheries managers must base their management measures on hard science, not merely on the fear of lost income.

There would have to be a hard annual catch limit, and not merely “soft” restrictions on landings based on reducing the number of traps or v-notching females.

And should a federal Science and Statistics Committee, the equivalent of an ASMFC technical committee, say that a moratorium is required to rebuild the stock, that annual catch limit will be set at zero, for as long as is necessary to get the job done.  Any effort to impose a token 10% reduction, which may or may not actually be achieved, would be clearly illegal, and subject to a review in the courts.

Such factors explain why federal fisheries managers have been successful in rebuilding a number of overfished stocks, when ASMFC’s more “flexible” management measures have resulted only in failure.

They also explain why some in the fishing industry—regrettably, including the recreational fishing industry—are pushing so hard to amend Magnuson-Stevens, to make it look more like the ASMFC model of management.  

For if ASMFC’s flexible approach doesn’t do much to build fish populations, it does a good job of building folks’ profits, at least until the fish stocks collapse.

And for a lot of the industry voices, profit is their sole concern.

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