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DMR's 2023 Lobster Surveys Give Reason for Optimism

The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) announced at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum preliminary 2023 commercial fisheries landings figures and reviewed results of the department's 2023 lobster surveys.

According to DMR’s preliminary landings data, Maine commercial fishermen landed $611,277,692 in value in 2023, up $25 million from 2022. The jump in overall value came from a strong boat price for lobster. The price paid to lobstermen increased from $3.97 per pound in 2022 to $4.95 per pound in 2023. The pounds of lobster landed, however, decreased in 2023 to 93,734,116, down from 98,753,758 pounds in 2022.

DMR’s marine resource scientist Kathleen Reardon opened the lobster science session with a review of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Addendum 27 to the lobster fishery management plan, which requires a minimum gauge size increase in January 2025.

The increase is based on a trigger set in the lobster management plan. If the three-year average in abundance of sub-legal lobsters (71-80 mm in size) decreases by 35% or more, then management action is triggered. The abundance of sub-legal lobsters is determined from three different surveys — two trawl surveys and the ventless trap survey. It is not based on landings or the lobster settlement index. That average showed a 39% decline based on data from 2020, 2021, and 2022 and continues to show a 39% decline with the addition of the 2023 data.

However, data from DMR’s 2023 lobster surveys show many of the surveys stabilizing, and a few increasing.

Reardon moved on to an overview of 2023 lobster landings by zone. Highest landings were found in Lobster Zones A and D. The eastern lobster zone landings dropped from peak years. Zone C, while still higher than western zones, had the sharpest drop in landings. “Lobster abundance was patchy last year. There were some low catch areas, higher catches in others,” Reardon said. “Some boats chose not to fish, or to fish more traps or have longer soak times. It was similar to 2022.”

Drawing on trip level data, the catch per trap was high in 2023 despite declining abundance. “Average catch rate remains high, around 400 to 450 pounds per trip,” Reardon said. All lobstermen now report daily effort by 10 minute square. These data show that most trips are made inside three miles, and fewest trips are made outside of 12 miles, contradicting the anecdotal belief that most Maine lobstermen are fishing outside. The data, however, indicate that all survey grids inside Lobster Management Area 1 show fishing effort.

DMR’s weekly and biweekly surveys of lobster larvae from June to September, 2023, showed a big increase in stage 4 larvae, reported DMR’s Heather Glon. Stage 4 larvae are the final stage before the lobsters move to settle on the seafloor.

The lobster settlement survey also showed an uptick from previous years. The lobster settlement surveys identify the young-of-the-year lobsters that have settled on the seafloor. “This is the first year the results are above the times series average coastwide since 2011,” Reardon said. “But remember this is just one year of data.”

The department’s ventless trap survey, which takes place from June to August at 276 sites in state waters, found that sublegal lobster numbers remained stable in the west, but continued to decline in the eastern region. Data from the spring and summer trawl surveys, which conduct 120 tows per season and extend to 12 nautical miles, indicated that sub-legal lobster numbers were up in 2023, particularly during the fall survey, after a steady decline in previous years.

However, both remain well below historic highs. Reardon noted that bottom temperatures, both in the spring and the fall, have been the highest ever recorded during the past three years.

The Sea Sampling Program, conducted aboard commercial lobster boats, showed that sub-legal lobsters found in traps hauled were less than at the peak in 2017 but the decline has leveled off since 2020 and still remain above the historic levels prior to 2010. The number of legal and V-notched lobsters recorded remained stable generally, with a slight decline in eastern lobster zones since earlier peaks.

Both the Sea Sampling and ventless trap surveys found an abundance of small lobsters, less than 60 mm in length, in the Downeast survey areas.

In summary, Reardon said that lobster surveys indicate that 2023 was similar to 2022. While there is positive news with data showing settlement and larvae numbers are up, she emphasized, “one year, however, is not a trend.”


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