July 11, 2010

Researchers give attention to worthy claws

In-depth studies of Maine lobsters aim to ensure the future of the state's most lucrative fishery.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When it is time to reproduce, the male lobster acts more like the male bowerbird than a crustacean.

click image to enlarge

Diane Cowan, executive director of the Lobster Conservancy, inspects a lobster at the lobster pound at the Lobster Conservancy on Friendship Long Island.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Diane Cowan photographs lobster mating sites, located near the yellow flag, at the conservancy.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

For more information on Marissa McMahan’s lobster and cod study along with a video, go to http://blog.gmri.org/?p=38

More information
on the Maine lobster industry is available at the Department of Marine Resources lobster website.
 

First, he builds a special mating shelter out of rocks. Then, he places piles of clam shells, crab carcasses and other items outside to show off his hunting prowess.

If suitably impressed, the female lobster will check out the shelter with her claws before giving the male the sniff test.

"He needs to smell good," said Diane Cowan, a lobster scientist.

Discovering the mating rituals is just one aspect of lobster research that has kept Cowan busy for 27 years -- many of them at a 6-acre lobster pound, the research lab for The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship.

While most people prefer their lobsters bright red on a plate with lemon and butter, Cowan is one of a dozen researchers in Maine who have devoted their lives to a better understanding of the American lobster, or Homarus americanus, in the wild. Not only have they put Maine on the map for their research, but they are also working to ensure the future of the state's most lucrative fishery.

Even after millions of dollars and decades of study, much about the lobster is unknown, said Carl Wilson, lead lobster scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He is part of a three-member agency team that studies the fishery with the goal of someday being able to better predict its future.

Lobstering generates about $300 million in sales a year and employs 5,800 licensed fishermen who collectively haul about 3 million traps up and down the Maine coast annually. Thousands more work at lobster processing plants, dealerships and seafood restaurants.

"Not only are lobsters interesting, but the fishery is extremely interesting socially and culturally so you get anthropologists, economists and social scientists" involved in the research mix, said Wilson.

For decades, some scientists have been predicting the Maine lobster fishery would collapse from overfishing, but so far that hasn't happened. Populations to the south in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been decimated by a shell disease in the past decade, to the point that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the fishery, earlier this year recommended a five-year ban on lobstering in that region.

But in Maine, lobster landings have never been stronger, setting a new record last year at 75.6 million pounds.

The Maine lobster industry has been managed by the state for more than 100 years and today is one of the most regulated fisheries in the world. Not only are there a finite number of fishing licenses available, but each fisherman is restricted to 800 traps a year.

The only lobsters legal to keep are those with carapaces 3.25 to 5 inches wide. Egg-bearing females are off-limits, and conservation-minded fishermen V-notch the tails of other females, which are supposed to be released if they are caught.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates the industry between states, filling a role similar to the New England Fisheries Management Council, which oversees groundfish.

TAKING STOCK

Despite the health of the Maine fishery -- which helped create a glut that drove down prices during the recession -- there is always the worry that the good times will end, which is why much of the lobster research is devoted to creating a more exact method of determining the population size.

This year, a University of Maine School of Marine Sciences team is putting the finishing touches on a more science-based stock assessment model paid for by a $430,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Led by Andrew Thomas, associate director of the marine sciences school, the project uses information such as water temperatures, currents and winds to predict numbers of lobster larvae and where they will settle after they hatch, mostly from large egg-bearing females Down East and around Canada's Grand Manan Island.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Diane Cowan measures a lobster on a float in the middle of the conservancy’s pound on Friendship Long Island.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Diane Cowan, executive director of the Lobster Conservancy, works on a float in the middle of the lobster pound at the Lobster Conservancy on Friendship Long Island.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Diane Cowan tags a lobster claw by applying Super Glue to duct tape. Even after decades of study, much about the lobster is unknown.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer



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