A federal commission will discuss increasing the minimum legal size of caught lobsters or other management measures to respond to a decline in numbers of juvenile lobster in recent years.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled to discuss proposed measures to protect the spawning stock of lobster in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank on Tuesday in Arlington, Va.  

Measures the commission will be considering include increasing the minimum legal harvestable size of lobsters in the Gulf of Maine by up to 1/8 inch in increments, either scheduled proactively or triggered by a  decline in abundance of young lobsters.

Maine lobstermen say the measures come at a bad time, when they are already struggling to comply with new federal regulations to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in fishing gear, and they are facing economic challenges with the price of bait and fuel at record highs coupled with low prices they are getting for their catch at the dock.

“Working to preserve a healthy lobster stock is a core value of Maine’s lobstering industry and is passed down from generation to generation, however MLA is concerned with the proposed timing,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Any changes to lobster minimum and maximum size now could make it even more difficult for hardworking lobstermen who are already grappling with new federal rules.”

The Maine lobster industry is known for its  sustainability, with strong conservation measures already in place to protect the spawning stock. These include a maximum harvestable size limit of 5 inches, and protections against harvesting egg-bearing females through a mandatory V-notching program, in which a V-shaped cut is made into the tail of a female bearing eggs. It is illegal to keep females with this mark even if they are caught when they’re not bearing eggs.


Though the commission has determined that lobster stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring now, the proposed actions are intended to protect landings from potentially dropping past 100 million pounds in for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Banks because of the economic impacts that could result. They cite the example of Southern New England where the fishery collapsed after a trend of declines in juvenile lobsters.

At Lobster Zone Council meetings this spring, Maine lobstermen expressed frustration about the proposal because they say they face far greater threats to the fishery through new and upcoming federal measures to protect right whales than they do from declines in abundance when landings are still high. Rather than making size limit adjustments, some have argued, efforts should be directed toward gathering data about the shifts in right whale habitat and causes of right whale deaths, because they do not believe Maine lobster gear is to blame.

A recent court ruling that gear modifications Maine fishermen adopted this year did not go far enough to to protect the whales makes this concern more pressing.

Sternman Ben Foster unloads lobsters from the boat Sleepless Nights at Greenhead Lobster in Stonington this spring. Lobster regulators are considering a proposal on Tuesday to change the minimum legal size of harvestable lobsters to protect the fishery. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Furthermore, they argued that Maine’s measures to conserve lobster spawning stock are reversed when fishermen in other management areas in the Gulf of Maine and outer Cape Cod can keep the large lobsters Maine lobstermen throw back, and when V-notching is not required everywhere. Standardizing the rules across management areas covering the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank is another option the commission is considering.


Currently,  lobsters in Management Area 1 of the Gulf of Maine, where most Maine lobstermen fish, must have carapace lengths of between 3 ¼ and 5 inches. The carapace is the shell that covers the lobster’s midsection from the eye sockets to the beginning of its tail.  Lobstermen must carry a standard gauge to measure the carapace of each lobster caught, and those that are outside that range must be tossed overboard.


The first 1/16 inch increase would take effect in the 2023 fishing season at the earliest, if the scheduled increase option is chosen or if the juvenile lobster abundance declines past a threshold from 2016-2018 levels this year.

Traps also have plastic vents that are inserted into a gap in lobster cage walls that allow juvenile lobsters below harvestable size to escape. Those would not have to be changed until the second incremental increase of 1/16 inch, if it is scheduled or triggered. According to the current draft plan, this would happen in the 2025 season at the earliest.

The commission is considering setting the threshold at 17% or 20%. As of 2020, the declines, measured as a combined index of different surveys of young lobsters, was at around 16%, according to Kathleen Reardon, senior lobster biologist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. She is also chair of the American Lobster Technical Committee of the ASMFC and a member of the commission’s plan development team.

Reardon said the technical committee considered several other management options than legal size changes, including seasonal closures, quotas and lower trap limits but did not want to go those routes. They determined that increasing the minimum size – giving young lobsters more time to reproduce before being harvested – would have a greater impact than decreasing the maximum size because of the sheer number of lobsters that would be protected.

“(In Maine) everyone is very dependent on that first molt, so right when they molt into being legal size, we clean those lobsters up,” said Reardon. “Most of our catch is just above legal size…. If you increase that minimum size, it has the highest impact on spawning stock biomass, because there are so many of them.”

According to the committee’s analysis, increasing the minimum legal size in Management Area 1 by 5.5 millimeters would result in nearly doubling the spawning stock. While this would result in a “marginal” decreases in the total number of lobsters landed, they predicted, the total weight of the catch would increase because the lobsters harvested would be larger.


It recommends raising the minimum legal size to approach the size at which 50% of the lobster population reaches maturity for each zone, which is 88 millimeters in the eastern Gulf of Maine, 83 millimeters in the western Gulf of Maine and and 91 millimeters at Georges Bank. 

The commission will consider several options for implementing a size increase. One  is to proactively schedule incremental increases in the minimum legal size. Fishermen would have to use new gauges to measure each lobster caught. First the size in the Gulf of Maine would increase by 1/16 inch to 3 5/16 inches for the 2023 fishing season, and then to 3 ⅜ inches for the 2025 fishing year. In 2025, the plastic vents in lobster traps would have to be replaced. 

Another option is to have size increases triggered by thresholds in if juvenile lobster counts decline using the 2016-2018 abundance indices as a baseline. At a 17% or 20% decline, the minimum size for Management Area 1 would increase by 1/16 inches to 3 5/16 inches for the following fishing year. At a 30% or 32% decline, the minimum size would increase again by 1/16 inch to 3 3/8 inches and vent size would increase for the following fishing year. In addition, the maximum legal harvestable size in Management Area 3, further offshore in the Gulf of Maine, and for the outer Cape Cod management area would decrease to 6 inches.

And a third option would be for the minimum size to increase incrementally over two years in Management Area 1 if triggered by the 17% or 20% decline, whether or not it also passes the 30% or 32% threshold. In this option, Management Areas 3 and outer Cape Cod would maintain the status quo. 

As of 2020, declines from the 2016-2018 reference period had reached around 16%, according to Reardon, just shy of the potential 17% threshold. Requests from the marine resources department for 2021 declines were not responded to by press time.

The commission reported in 2021 that young-of-year indices, estimates for the abundance of lobster that have just settled to the ocean bottom from the water column where they spend their larval stage, have shown declines for eight years. This is concerning, they say, because in Southern New England, young-of-year indices began to decline in 1995, two years before landings peaked in 1997, and roughly five years before landings precipitously declined in the early 2000s.


Maine scientists point out that Maine, with its strong conservation measures already in place, is in a better position than Southern New England was in the late 1990s, and that simple adjustments could help prevent the major declines that occurred there.

“All those measures … put our fishery in a really good position to not only stave off a collapse from potential future warming, but to capitalize on great conditions for reproduction potential to build the population,” said Richard Wahle, marine biologist and director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute.

Surveys of lobster settlement are used to project the future of landings about eight years out, because it takes about that long for most lobsters to mature to harvestable size. As expected, surveys of juvenile lobsters in the Gulf of Maine have recently begun to show declines.

Ventless trap surveys collect lobsters just below harvestable size. The results of those surveys are complicated because some of the surveys were disrupted by the pandemic, and the declines could be attributed to other factors such as a shift in the distribution of lobsters to deeper waters. However, trawl surveys of juvenile lobsters at 75 fathoms have also shown declines.

Declines have begun to be reflected in landings as well.

In Maine, landings have dropped from a peak of 132.6 million pounds in 2016 to 108.9 million in 2021. Landings were below 100 million in 2020, though other factors such as fewer harvesting days because of the pandemic contributed to the decline that year.

Looking beyond Maine, landings for the fishery as a whole also peaked in 2016 with 156 million pounds landed and has been up and down with 133 million pounds landed in 2021.

The cause for these declines is uncertain. Scientists suggest it could be a decline in the type of plankton larval lobster feed on, or increased predators, or if the population is just coming down off a bubble from extremely high settlement in 2008. Whatever the cause, the commission argues, greater protections of the spawning stock would help the fishery weather those and other threats.

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