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ASMFC Hears Lobstermen's Concerns About Planned Gauge Change

By Melissa Waterman and Patrice McCarron

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) responded to the concerns raised by Maine lobstermen, lobstering organizations, and state officials in recent months about its planned implementation of an increase to the minimum legal size for lobsters in Lobster Management Area 1 on January 1, 2025. Addendum 27 to the lobster fishery management plan raises the minimum size from 3-1/4 inches to 3-5/16 on that date. A second increase would begin in 2027, setting the minimum size at 3-3/8 inches.

The ASMFC will reexamine the impacts of the planned minimum size gauge increase. MLA photo.

The lobster industry was shocked when the ASMFC reported last October that the Gulf of Maine stock of sublegal lobsters had dropped 39% based on comparing the most recent three year average of surveys conducted in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to the reference period. Addendum 27, passed in May 2023, required a gauge change if the average dropped by 35%.

In 2023 the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) objected to ASMFC requiring increases in the minimum gauge based on a 35% “trigger” when Addendum 27 was being developed. In a letter submitted during the 2023 public comment period, the MLA stated its specific concerns about how a gauge increase could affect the boat price for U.S.-caught lobster, and was particularly unfair for Downeast lobstermen fishing close to the international border with Canada. MLA cited the need to conduct a study of market impacts before considering changes to the lobster gauge.

The MLA has questioned whether the trigger index is performing as it was intended, noting that data from 2019 through 2021 showed only a 23% decline in sub-legal lobsters, while adding just one year of survey data, from 2020 through 2022, spiked the decline in sub-legal lobster to 39%. DMR’s latest data from 2023 shows signs that the decline may be leveling out or reversing.

The MLA wrote to the ASMFC in April, requesting that the Lobster Board delay the implementation of the schedule of Lobster Management Area 1 gauge increases. The MLA cited a list of concerns including that it considers the ASMFC’s trigger to be overly precautionary and that the gauge increase will cause lobstermen economic harm. According to MLA, lobstermen continue report observing high numbers of undersized and eggers in their traps, and the numbers of legal and v-notch lobster have remained stable over time. Lobstermen also worry that surveys are not being conducted in deeper waters and are not accurately reflecting the status of the resource. According to MLA, delaying the gauge will also provide more time to review the survey data from 2023. Maine’s data shows significant improvements in nearly all surveys.

There will be a negative ripple effect on the economics of the lobster industry, the MLA added. If the gauge change goes into effect as scheduled, Canadian lobstermen will be the ones catching the smaller sized lobsters, known as “chicks,” which could drive down the boat price for Maine lobster.

The Maine Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee wrote a letter, authored by Rep. Tiffany Strout, to Maine’s three ASMFC representatives — Commissioner Keliher, Rep. Alison Hepler and lobsterman Steve Train — urging them to support pausing implementation of the gauge change. The Committee noted concern over the estimated 20% decline in landings for Zone A lobstermen and the unfairness of competition from Canadian lobstermen. “The unintended consequences … are a decrease of landings for Maine lobstermen and an increase in landings for the Canadian lobstermen still resulting in the same number of lobsters harvested,” the letter stated.

Members of Maine’s lobster industry, both harvesters and dealers, attended the ASFMC meeting in Virginia to voice their concerns. MLA’s President Kristan Porter emphasized the need to delay the gauge increase to provide time for the U.S. and Canada to address the market and trade issues created by the gauge increase and to understand if the resource is truly in a down turn. He highlighted the inequity of the U.S. adopting a gauge increase if Canada does not, and suggested that ASMFC consider starting with a vent increase, rather than a measure increase, as a means to provide additional protection to the stock without causing trade issues.

Lobster dealers Curt Brown, Hugh Reynolds and John Norton emphasized the economic harm they will suffer if they lose access to small lobsters, especially during May and June, while lobsterman representatives noted the harm that harvesters would suffer from loss of catch and reduced boat price. Charlene Cates from Machias Savings Bank told the Commission that the economic harm caused by a gauge increase could ripple throughout Maine’s coastal communities.

Commissioner Keliher addressed his peers during the Lobster Management Board meeting, noting that Addendum 27 is ASMFC’s first attempt “to be proactive with a fishery that is still relatively healthy.” While he stands behind that approach, he questions if the Commission missed something. “Our focus to work only with the data around sustainability seems to have missed the mark. We missed thinking more about the economic impacts and the flow of lobster with Canada. Our normal fisheries management actions… are reactionary to declining stocks. In those instances, it’s very difficult to take those social and economic issues into account. But I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. When we are being proactive, we must take the time to not only understand the science but also explore and understand the unintended consequences.”

The Lobster Board agreed to get more information on the ramifications of the gauge change and will continue to engage with Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, encouraging Canada to increase the minimum size for lobster on ASMFC’s schedule or as soon as possible. The Board will compile public comments related to Addendum 30, which seeks to clarify that the smallest minimum size for foreign imports of lobster into the U.S. would match the smallest minimum size in effect for the U.S. and the Technical Committee will review the most recent survey data to reassess the level of decline.

“A delay in the gauge increase would avoid a huge market disruption resulting in economic harm to Maine’s lobster industry while allowing ASMFC to gain another year of survey data to determine if the lobster resource is still in decline, work with harvesters and dealers to understand the full range of economic impacts, and resolve trade issues with Canada,” noted Patrice McCarron, MLA’s Acting COO.


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