The American Lobster Fishery
- Trap based fishery.
- Managed collaboratively between the states, the federal government, and the lobstermen.
- One of the most valuable fisheries in the United States.
A Historic Fishery
When English settlers first arrived in America, lobsters were said to be so plentiful that they would wash up on beaches and giant lobsters could be collected by walking along the shores at low tide. Because they were so abundant, lobster was considered the food of the poor and early colonists served them to prisoners, indentured servants, and even pigs! It took a while, but eventually people’s tastes evolved to appreciate the delicious crustacean.
In the 1840’s the state of Maine established its first Commercial Lobster Fishery. At first the lobster was canned for easy transport. However, by the late 1800’s, lobster was no longer a poor man’s food and instead was seen as a delicacy. Tourists that had summered in New England acquired a taste for lobster and wanted to be able to eat it not only on vacation but also at home. As a result, expensive restaurants in major cities like New York City starting serving fresh lobster.
As demand for lobster increased, populations began to decline. To address this decline, the state of Maine established it's first lobster conservation measure by banning the sale of egg bearing females in 1872. Two years later a minimum size limit was established to attempt to protect the species and combat overfishing. By 1950 populations began to steadily increase and the last few years have produced record catches. In 2014, for example, about 148 million pounds of American lobster were landed (worth over $567 million), making the American lobster fishery the most valuable fishery in the U.S.!
The Modern Day Fishery
The fishery currently extends from the U.S. - Canada border down to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. However, over 94 percent of the total lobster catch is landed within the Gulf of Maine.
Lobster is harvested through a trap-based fishery. The traps are predominantly rectangular wire mesh traps with side entrances and escape vents for smaller lobsters. Fishermen bait the traps with a variety of different baits such as herring, pogies, or redfish. The traps are set in 15-1000 foot deep water and attached to a rope with a buoy that marks the trap at the surface. Each lobsterman in an area will have his own unique color and pattern painted on his buoys to clearly differentiate his buoys from others. These are often bright colors that are easily visible even in foggy conditions. Lobstermen are typically very territorial about where they set their traps. Territory is not designated or enforced by state or federal regulations but by the lobstermen themselves. It is not unheard of to for a lobsterman to cut another’s traps because he encroached on “his fishing grounds”.
The American lobster fishery does not have a closed season (with the exception of a few places) and lobster can be caught year round. However, landings of lobster are highly seasonal due to their natural growth and migration patterns (you can learn more about this in our American Lobster creature feature). In the winter through early spring, lobsters tend to live offshore in deeper waters. In the late spring and early summer, inshore waters begin to warm and lobster migrate back to the shallow waters where they will spend their summer and fall. The majority of American lobster in the United States is caught during these warmer months because the shallower coastal waters are more accessible and the summer weather tends to be calmer and more pleasant, making fishing conditions safer for the lobstermen. Many lobsters caught during this time tend to have molted recently and therefore have a softer shell. Referred to as new shells, soft shells, or shedders, these lobsters are known by locals to be sweet, tender and delicious. They are also much easier to eat than a hard shell lobster and can often be eaten without any tools required. However, because new shell lobsters have just acquired a larger shell they do have less meat in them than a hard shell lobster of the same carapace size. They are also more delicate and therefore do not travel easily. As a result, soft-shelled lobsters are sold for less money than hard-shelled lobsters.
The management of the American lobster fishery in the United States is a bit complicated to understand. In the US, NOAA manages fisheries in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (the waters between 3-200 miles off the coast) and the states manage fisheries in state waters (between 0-3 miles). Additionally, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was established in 1942 to help states along the Atlantic coast collectively manage the migratory marine species they share. Representatives from the states and NOAA are on the boards of each fishery for the ASMFC. Due to the presence of lobster from Maine to North Carolina the fishery is managed by a fishery management plan (FMP) created by the ASMFC and implemented and enforced by both the states and NOAA. The ASMFC also allows individual states to establish additional stricter regulations within their own state waters.
The ASMFC divides the coast up into 7 Lobster Conservation Management Areas (LCMAs). Each LCMA has its own set of regulations. The rational behind breaking up the stocks into LCMAs is that conditions and factors such as lobster size may not be the same in each area therefore one blanket regulation may not be appropriate for all areas. LCMAs allow the commission to address each area individually.
Here are some of the regulations that lobstermen must follow:
Permits: Fishermen must have a permit to fish for lobsters. Getting a permit is different for each area and some states have their own additional requirements.
V-notching: V-notching protects reproductively active females. When a lobsterman catches a female lobster carrying eggs, he is required to release it. The lobsterman will also cut a V-notch in the tail fin so that if she is caught again, after she has released her eggs, other fishermen will know that she is breeding female and are also required to release her.
Minimum and maximum gauge sizes: The sizes are different in each LCMA. In Area 1, lobsters must be between 3 ¼ - 5 inches carapace length. The goal of minimum size limit is to allow the lobsters to reach maturity and reproduce at least once before being caught in the fishery. The goal of the maximum size limit is to protect the larger lobsters that are important spawners.
Trap limits: Each boat is limited to a vessel-based trap allocation based on historic catch records or an area wide trap cap. Area 1 for example, has a trap limit of 800 traps.
Prohibition on keeping lobster meat or parts: Lobsters must be landed live to ensure they are of legal size.
Gear restrictions and trap configuration requirements:
- Gear marking requirements (Buoys and traps must be marked with tags and information such as license number where appropriate.
- Escape vents (must be large enough to ensure undersized lobsters can leave the trap).
- Ghost panels (regulations require biodegradable ghost panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing of lost traps).
- Servicing requirements (traps must be hauled at least every 30 days. Some areas require more frequent servicing).
- Line requirements (ropes used on traps must meet federal regulations to help prevent marine mammal entanglements. This includes a prohibition on floating line between traps and a break away connection to the buoy.)
- Monitoring and Reporting Requirements:
Lobster Management in Maine
In Maine, the state that lands the largest number of lobsters, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has implemented its own management on top of the ASMFC regulations. The fishery is managed through co-management, a collaboration between the government and the lobstermen themselves. The state divides the coast up into Zones A-G and each zone has its own set of regulations such as stricter trap limits. Maine has also established Lobster Conservation Zones around specific areas such as Monhegan Island where special regulations are enforced such as seasonal closures. The lobstermen of Maine have a very large role in the management and conservation of the fishery. Because so many people in Maine depend on the resource to make a living, it is very important to them to protect the sustainability of the fishery. Conservation measures such as the V-notch requirement were developed and self-imposed by the lobstermen themselves.