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For Maine lobstermen, less could mean more

Officials want to cut number of traps

''We need to understand the long-term effect of this'' before actually reducing traps, says Ryan Post, a lobsterman from Rockland, Maine. ''We need to understand the long-term effect of this'' before actually reducing traps, says Ryan Post, a lobsterman from Rockland, Maine. (Joel Page for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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STONINGTON, Maine - It sounds like a fish tale of enormous proportions: Put fewer lobster traps in the cold waters off Maine, maybe a lot fewer, and still catch the same number of the crustaceans.

Yet state officials and even some lobstermen say the idea has merit and could reduce fishermen's costs at a time when the $300 million industry is confronting a myriad challenges, from falling prices to higher bait and fuel expenses.

Supporters believe that the ocean floor off Maine is so thick with lobster pots - an estimated 2.5 million, or about two for every resident - that they don't work efficiently. Fewer traps may not reduce the size of the catch, they say, because more lobsters would be caught in each trap.

"It's promising and necessary," George Lapointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said of the idea. "If there is anything we've learned in fisheries, it is do not wait until you are in trouble to do something. And it could mean less money on bait and fuel."

There is another compelling reason for lobstermen to consider reducing the number of traps: They are under pressure from environmentalists - and perhaps eventually from federal officials - to do so, because end lines, the ropes running from the traps to surface buoys, pose a danger to whales, including federally endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Of the 323 whale entanglements reported between 1997 and 2007, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials were able to pinpoint the origin of the fishing gear in 45 cases. Eleven appear to have been snagged with gear set in Maine.

The environmental group Ocean Conservancy says fewer traps would probably mean fewer entanglements and recently called for Maine lobstermen to halve the number of end lines.

Lobstermen have their own reason for being open to the idea: The sea floor is crowded with traps. Stories abound about buoy lines getting impossibly tangled in the mass of fishing rope in the water. Some 56 percent of lobstermen who responded to a state survey last summer said they would support fewer traps where they fish.

Although the lobster populations off Maine are healthy, these are uneasy times for most Maine lobstermen to think about such a drastic change. A new federal rule, designed to protect whales, recently went into effect. It requires many lobstermen to use sinking ropes to link their traps - a modification that can cost thousands of dollars. The rules are designed to prevent fishing rope entanglements of the world's remaining 375 North Atlantic right whales and other whales.

Lobster prices for fishermen, meanwhile, sank to a three-decade low last year, as bait and fuel prices skyrocketed. Gas prices have since come down.

"It's been really tough," said Robert Ingalls, a lobsterman in Bucks Harbor who remains unconvinced that fewer traps would still produce a profitable catch. Asks Ingalls: "Why would I cut my income by reducing traps?"

Most Maine lobstermen are allowed up to 800 traps each in the water. Lobsters are caught by baiting traps that lie on the sea floor. Younger lobsters that are too small to be caught can escape the trap, but larger ones cannot. No one knows how many traps would get lobstermen the same amount of lobster they now catch, and scientists suspect it may differ depending how cold the water is, the bottom conditions, and other factors.

Four years ago, with the help of the tightknit fishing community on Monhegan Island, state lobster scientists ran an experiment that found that 150 lobster traps caught nearly the same number of lobsters, within 15 percent, as 500 traps did. The state is now looking for funding to run another experiment this summer near Tenant's Harbor to see if they come up with similar results.

Lobstermen "have this great resource," said Carl Wilson, the state's chief lobster biologist who led the experiment. "Now, how do you make the most money from it and continue to protect the resource?"

Whales are another challenge, as pressure builds from environmental groups for lobstermen to reduce the number of end lines. A federally required coalition of fishermen, federal and state officials, and environmental groups are beginning to examine end lines and whales with the goal of coming up with new rules by 2014.

But even if traps were reduced, some scientists say it does not definitively mean a reduction in end lines; some may just start putting more single traps out, which in turn increases the number of end lines.

"[Fewer] traps doesn't necessarily mean less rope," said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, which has not taken a position on the state's investigation on trap reductions.

Yet some fishermen say that trap reduction to save money is intriguing and that if it helps whales, all the better.

"It's hopeful if we can spend less on bait and less on fuel," said Ryan Post, a lobsterman from Rockland. "But we are in a perfect storm right now [of problems to the lobster industry]. We need to understand the long-term effect of this" before actually reducing traps.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.