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Source: The Day

Lobstermen enlist allies

Nonprofits to fight proposal at meeting this week in R.I.

BY JUDY BENSON
DAY STAFF WRITER

Posted: July 20, 2010
Originally Published: July 20, 2010

Southern New England lobstermen fighting a proposed five-year shutdown of their fishery have two seemingly unlikely allies - two of the largest environmental nonprofits that work in the areas of Connecticut and New York, surrounding Long Island Sound.

"The moratorium doesn't do anything but assassinate the lobstermen, and it's very evident that overfishing is not the problem," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "It does not address the problem, which is climate change and poor water quality."

Esposito and a representative of the second group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, both plan to be among commercial lobstermen and others at a daylong meeting Thursday of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Lobster Management Board.

The 34-member panel will review data on the depleted lobster populations in southern New England and consider recommendations, including a five-year moratorium on commercial and recreational lobster fishing in all waters south of Cape Cod, including Long Island Sound. The meeting will take place at the Crowne Plaza at the Crossings hotel in Warwick, R.I.

Toni Kerns, senior fisheries management planning coordinator for the commission, stressed that no final decision on the moratorium proposal will be made at Thursday's meeting. Rather, the lobster board will weigh the data, listen to public comment and consider alternative proposals for restoring the lobster population. It would then determine what actions it would like to formally propose to the full commission, which sets rules that govern East Coast fisheries, for its upcoming meeting either in August or in the fall, Kerns said.

There will be more opportunity for public comment and state-level public hearings on whatever proposal emerges, she said. The soonest a final decision could be made is late winter, and it would probably take effect in early 2011, unless an emergency is declared, she said.
"It's a long process," she said.

The agenda for the meeting also calls for discussion on whether a federal disaster declaration should be sought for the southern New England lobster fishery. Such a declaration, she said, would be a first step toward federal financial assistance for lobstermen put out of business by a moratorium. To give lobstermen and the public confidence in the scientific studies and data the board will be using, Kerns said, the board has received federal funding to have the material reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The moratorium proposal was part of an April report to the board on the lobster population. Based on trawl surveys, the data that will be considered Thursday estimates the 2009 lobster population in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts waters at about 14 million pounds, the lowest since the early 1980s. Lobster stocks are described as being in "poor condition" with few juvenile lobsters just below the legal size turning up in trawl surveys.

"We're afraid it's not a cycle. It's an indication that the population has been driven down to a dangerous level," Kerns said.

The population declines have occurred while the lobster industry has continued to shrink, with fewer than 100 commercial lobstermen remaining in New York and Connecticut. While overfishing is not to blame for the decline, Kerns said, a moratorium on fishing may be the only practical tool available to give the population at least a chance at rebuilding.

"One of our goals is to have sustainable fisheries with efficient harvest," she said. "We understand that the impacts of a moratorium will go beyond the fishermen themselves" to the associated businesses and the cultural and social significance of lobstering to the region.

But enacting a moratorium would be taking an extreme step before more moderate remedies, such as a multi-state, federally funded "V-notch" program, are tried, said both Schmaltz of CFE and Esposito of the Citizens Campaign. The "V-notch" program, considered a success when run on a short, limited basis in Connecticut in 2008, involves lobstermen cutting V-shaped notches in the tails of female lobsters of egg-bearing age and throwing them back, then receiving a payment to compensate. Both environmental groups' missions include preserving the traditional industries that depend on the Sound, the two said.

They also agreed that there should be a plan to address the larger problems plaguing Long Island Sound that are affecting the lobsters. This would include increased efforts to reduce polluted runoff, more funding for improvements to sewage treatment plants that empty into the Sound, better management of pesticides and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to increases in the average water temperature in the Sound. Lobsters become stressed when water temperatures exceed 66 degrees for three to four months of the year, as has been the case recently, Kerns said.

"Putting the lobstermen out of business is just plain cruel, and doesn't solve the problem but creates another one," Esposito said.