An apprentice measures a lobster to see if it’s a keeper aboard the Sea Smoke in Casco Bay in July 2023. Regulators want to increase the minimum length of lobster that can be harvested, from 3 1/4 to 3 5/16 inches. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is calling on federal regulators to reevaluate new rules that would increase by one-sixteenth of an inch the minimum size of lobsters fishermen are legally allowed to harvest.

The rules, which are set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025, will increase the minimum size – from 3 1/4 inches to 3 5/16 inches – on the gauges that lobstermen use to measure lobsters and determine whether they are allowed to harvest them. A second increase would take effect two years later, bringing the minimum to 3 3/8 inches. The rules also affect the vents in traps that allow undersized lobsters to escape.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission says it is making the changes to preserve the long-term future of the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine, which federal data show has sharply dropped. Maine lobstermen, however, say that while the increases appear miniscule, they will impact their livelihoods by taking their most popular catch – 1- to 1.25-pound lobsters – out of the running.

Lobstermen also question the accuracy of the federal data – saying that it was collected over a small and abnormal time frame that doesn’t indicate the reality of population trends.

Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, believes the commission needs to better weigh the value of industry concerns.

“I firmly believe we need some kind of resiliency measures and I do not support delaying action indefinitely,” Keliher said in a statement Wednesday. “However, we need to fully understand the potential consequences of this action to markets and lobster businesses. I will continue to work with the (commission’s Lobster Management) Board to ensure that we have the information we need to avoid unintended consequences of these well-intended actions.”

Advertisement

Rep. Jared Golden also has urged federal regulators to delay the new rules from taking effect. Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, is concerned about impacts on the industry and economy at large, and believes that these changes need to wait until better research is collected.

“I am deeply concerned about the implications a gauge increase next year – absent robust economic and scientific analyses – will have on the viability of Maine’s lobster industry and the communities it supports. Proceeding as proposed could create a dire economic situation for harvesters and processors,” Golden wrote to the commission. “Based on conversations with fishermen and dealers, I am concerned that the data … does not entirely reflect the current status of the stock.”

He has called on the commission to delay the implementation of the rules, work with fishermen to better collect more comprehensive data and research impacts that the gauge increase would have on U.S. markets.

HITTING THE MARK

In May 2023, the commission approved rules adjusting the minimum gauge and vent sizes lobstermen can use on their gear. The changes grew out of concerns that after 2016, when Maine’s lobster fishery had the highest landings on record, settlement surveys were consistently dropping. Settlement surveys measure trends in how many juvenile lobsters there are in the Gulf of Maine.

“Given the economic importance of the lobster fishery to many coastal communities in New England, especially in Maine, potential reductions in landings could have vast socioeconomic impacts,” the commission said.

Advertisement

The commission determined that the new rules would go into effect if the lobster stock in the Gulf of Maine dropped 35% from assessments averaged between 2016 through 2018.

Members of Maine’s lobster industry believe that those years aren’t an accurate reflection of the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine.

At the time, the Maine Department of Marine Resources believed the changes would come much further down the line.

“Where we are right now at a 23% decline, versus the trigger level of 35% decline, it doesn’t seem likely that it would be something (the American Lobster Board) would see in October,” department spokesperson Jeff Nichols said last May.

But in October 2023, the commission announced that Maine had hit that low and the wheels were set in motion to adjust gauge and vent sizes.

A gauge is a sort of ruler that measures a lobster’s carapace, or body, to help determine whether they are long enough to catch. And the escape vents ensure that smaller lobsters are able to leave traps and return to their habitat to continue growing.

Advertisement

The gauges currently run from 3.25 inches to 5 inches. Vent sizes, per Maine statute, are currently 1.75 inches by 5.75 inches for rectangular openings and 2.25 inches for circular openings.

CUTTING OUT CHICKS

Lobstermen say that as the gauges get longer, 1- to 1.25-pound lobsters, their most popular catch, are off the table.

“For lobster to fall into a certain marketable categories, it has to be in certain weight categories,” said Richard Wahle, former director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute. “Those chicken lobsters, smaller lobsters, they’re under such high demand because it’s the perfect meal size. As you get into the larger sizes, it gets to be a bigger meal and it adds to the cost, too, because price point per pound is higher.”

According to the commission’s stock assessment, however, a 3 1/4-inch lobster, the current minimum size, weighs an estimated 0.95 pounds while a 3 5/16-inch lobster, which is the increased minimum size after the first gauge change goes into effect, is estimated to weigh 0.98 pounds, Keliher said.

“As far as the small lobsters that Maine harvesters will not be able to land because of the minimum gauge increase, those lobsters will continue to grow, mature, contribute to the spawning stock biomass and resiliency of the stock, and will be available for harvest after the molt in 2025,” Keliher said in an email Wednesday night.

Advertisement

Lobstermen, however, are concerned about the impacts the changes will have on their livelihoods. And they are concerned about the effect it will have on the fishing economy at large.

With U.S. sizes limited, Canadian markets will be able to assume ownership over smaller lobsters, said Patrice McCarron, policy director at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. That, the association believes, also will impact where processors and dealers are getting their stock and how much money Maine lobstermen make.

“The MLA is adamantly opposed to the import of Canadian lobster under the U.S. minimum size because it would have a significant negative impact on the boat price for Maine lobster,” the association wrote in a letter to the commission last month.

PUTTING HARVESTERS AND DEALERS ‘AT ODDS’

The fisheries commission has proposed a new addendum that would limit foreign traders from importing lobsters smaller than Maine’s minimum gauge and vent size into the U.S. McCarron said that will alleviate some pressure and frustration in the lobstering industry.

But while lobstermen have given the addendum their stamp of approval, dealers and processors are not in favor.

Advertisement

“The dealers and processes have piped up and said, ‘We depend on that product from Canada to keep our processing plants open to fulfill our markets,’ ” McCarron said.

That’s why the Maine Lobstermen’s Association believes this increase in minimum gauge sizes needs to be put on hold.

“This will put the harvesters and dealers at odds,” McCarron said. “If we don’t increase the gauge, then we have time to look at the science more and then we are not going to be hit by this market trade issue with Canada that harvesters and dealers feel are going to impact them in different ways.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources also has Canada on its mind.

“This fishery is too valuable to our coastal communities to let it face the same fate as Southern New England stock,” Keliher said in his email Wednesday. “As chair of the ASMFC Lobster Management Board I firmly believe we need to protect this valuable resource in the face of a changing climate, and I do not support delaying action indefinitely.

“However, we do need to fully understand the economic impacts that we heard about yesterday from industry, such as lost revenue and loss of market share by U.S. harvesters to Canadian harvesters, as well as lost supply and revenue by dealers.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story