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Decline In V-Notching May Put Lobster Fishery at Risk

Protecting female lobsters from harvest is a practice almost as old as the state of Maine. Cutting a small V-notch in the flipper to the right of the center flipper of an egg-bearing female lobster protects it from being landed in the commercial catch, allowing it to produce eggs multiple times during her life. Since less than 1% of the eggs will survive long enough to become a mature lobster, having lots and lots of eggs in the water helps ensure that there will be harvestable lobsters in future years.

V-notching female egg-bearing lobsters is a longstanding practice in the Maine lobster fishery.

Photo R. Bakaty AP.

The practice dates back over 100 years. In 1872, the Maine Legislature passed its first law protecting egg-bearing female lobsters. In 1874, the state established a minimum legal size for harvested lobsters. And in 1917, the Legislature put in place the first marking program for female egg-bearing lobsters, requiring that a hole be punched in the tails of those females purchased by the state to bolster natural egg production. In 1948 the Legislature passed a law that declared any female lobster with a V-notch in her tail flipper could not be taken or sold, regardless of whether she was still carrying eggs. The new law had widespread support from lobstermen. The practice of notching eggers was done voluntarily by lobstermen until 2002 when it became mandatory as part of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Lobster Management Plan.

In recent years V-notching rates among Maine lobstermen have taken a tumble. In 2008, approximately 80% of all legal-sized egged lobsters examined through the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Sea Sampling program bore V-notches. That figure declined to around 60% in 2015, and has ranged between 60 to 66% each year since then, according to DMR figures. The overall decline in V-notching from its high point concerns DMR scientists and lobstermen as well.

“V-notching is our future,” said Matinicus lobsterman Jarod Bray. “More eggs in the ocean means more lobsters in the future. We are all going to reap rewards from doing it.”

“If egged lobsters are not V-notched, then as soon as they drop their [first batch of] eggs they will be harvested because the fishery is very efficient,” said Kathleen Reardon, DMR lobster fishery scientist. “With a V-notch, they will be able to reproduce again. V-notching creates a buffer.”

Maine lobstermen fought long and hard to make sure that V-notching was part of the overall fishery management plan not only for Maine lobstermen but throughout New England. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologists thought that the New England lobster populations were overfished. At that time the fishery was managed by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). The NMFS biologists did not believe that V-notching mattered, arguing that it was statistically unlikely that it positively affected lobster stocks.

The NEFMC proposed raising the minimum legal measure to 3.5 inches and abolishing the maximum measure and landing prohibition on V-notch lobsters. Maine lobstermen were outraged. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association partnered with University of Maine scientists to organize lobstermen to collect data which ultimately showed that V-notching had a strongly beneficial impact on lobster stocks. In the end, a compromise was reached with the NEFMC, and the series of gauge increases was avoided due to the efforts of the MLA: the legal minimum size was increased from 3-1/16 inches to 3-1/4 inches and Maine maintained its prohibition on landing V-notched and oversized lobsters.

And then something happened. The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine boomed. The waters of the Gulf began to warm up in the 1990s and 2000s, making more areas suitable as habitat for juvenile lobsters. While warmer waters ultimately had a negative effect on the southern New England lobster stock, the Gulf of Maine turned into a sweet spot for lobsters. Maine landings surged upward, from 53.5 million pounds in 2000 to an all-time record of 132.6 million pounds in 2016.

It wasn’t until after 2008, when Maine lobster landings truly skyrocketed, that the rate of V-notching began to fall. Lobstermen were hauling record numbers of lobsters in their traps. Handling such a high volume of lobster made it challenging to notch all the females.

Scientists worry that some lobstermen no longer see the value of V-notching for the long-term health of the lobster stock. “There’s a number of potential reasons for the decline [in V-notching]. Attitudes may be changing. Fishermen may be doing their own stock assessment and the attitude is that there’s enough V-notches on the bottom,” Reardon said.

That sentiment is still heard today, despite a downturn in landings and the recent declaration by the ASMFC of a 39% decline in juvenile lobsters between 2020 and 2022. Many lobstermen believe that the decline does not reflect the abundance of eggers and juveniles they see in their traps. “Sure, V-notching is a good idea. But there are so many egged lobsters inshore and offshore, just so many small ones. I don’t think we have to V-notch,” said a Vinalhaven lobsterman who wished to remain anonymous. “I catch more with eggs on them than without now.” Due to the boom in the Gulf’s lobster population during the past decades, the absolute number of V-notched lobsters on the bottom may be the same or higher than in the past despite the decline in the percentage of notched females.

By failing to V-notch, lobstermen are taking one conservation measure that may safeguard lobster stocks in a changing marine environment out of their toolbox.

The Gulf of Maine hasn’t stopped warming, in fact 2021 and 2022 were the hottest years ever recorded in the Gulf, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The water temperatures are rising most rapidly during the summer and fall months. The long-term impacts of such sharp changes in the marine environment worry many researchers.

V-notching egged females helps keep the brood stock strong as the Gulf of Maine warms and that in turn keeps a steady supply of eggs in the ecosystem. It has been a conservation component of the ASMFC lobster fishery management plan for nearly three decades and widely recognized by scientists as one element supporting the Gulf’s strong lobster populations.

The ASMFC has just started an update to its 2020 American Lobster Benchmark Stock Assessment. “The brood stock has been strong, but it’s anticipated that in the next assessment the brood stock will come down because lobsters at all life stages have come down since the last assessment [which used 2018 data],” Reardon said.

The abundance of reproductive females right now does not mean that such abundance will continue into future years. “I’m seeing so many eggers but not so many notched,” Bray said. “I’m not saying you have to do 100% every day but it’s our future. If you see 25 eggers that are not notched, just do it before you toss them over the rail. Even if you do just 10% more, it will be much better.”

The impact of the gradual decline in V-notching is unclear. “I don’t know the effect. V-notching creates a buffer so that if something happens to the ecosystem, there’s a cushion,” Reardon said. “I am meeting some young fishermen now who are less proactive or just neutral about V-notching an egger. They ask ‘Why would we do that?’ They don’t understand how hard a generation of lobstermen worked to get this recognized. It was a huge achievement.”


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