GROTON — At Grossman’s Seafood Market, they were selling a tale of tough times for Connecticut’s dwindling lobster fishery, which is facing a five-year moratorium by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, hosted an informational meeting Thursday that drew two lobstermen and seven news organizations on a sweltering summer day. Congress has no say on the moratorium, which will be the call of the commission’s American Lobster Management Board.
There are three major lobster fisheries in the United States, and while the northern two, the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Bank, have remained robust, the third, Southern New England, has experienced a precipitous fall off from a peak of nearly 35 million lobsters in 1999 to 15 million today.
The lobstermen present, Richie Maderia and John Niekrash, argued that the drop off was not the result of overfishing, but rather increased populations of predators, the dumping of pesticides into the ocean during the West Nile scare of 1999-2002, and warmer waters, which may have prompted the lobsters to migrate away from the coast.
They questioned the dependability of the information available on lobster stocks. Maderia highlighted that last winter was the single greatest winter for lobster, with daily catches as high as 700, instead of the typical yield of around 400.
Niekrash darkly suggested that the moratorium, a recommendation of the commission’s American Lobster Technical Committee, might be a ploy by northerners to increase the price of lobster. Between large hauls and a slow economy, lobster prices have been low. Niekrash noted that the chair of the committee is Carl Wilson of Maine.
Wilson dismissed Niekrash’s concerns. He said that the Southern New England fishery constitutes a marginal part of the total lobster industry, hardly a factor in setting the price of lobster.
His committee has members from all six lobster states, including Connecticut, and the moratorium was a consensus recommendation, he said.
“The severity of the document was not taken lightly,” said Wilson, who conceded that, given environmental factors, there are “significant questions as to whether the resource can ever be rebuilt.”
The moratorium is the fishery’s last, best hope.
The American Lobster Management Board will meet in Warwick, R.I., on July 22 to decide if the report will become a draft addendum. If it moves forward, there will be a series of public hearings before the board will reconvene to vote on the proposal.
Should it be approved, the moratorium would become an addendum to the original 1997 plan for sustainable lobster fishing in the Atlantic. According to Wilson, the whole process will take at least six months.
Courtney said he empathized with the lobstermen. While he does not have any direct power over the commission, he said he might bring budgetary pressure to bear on it if the panel moved ahead with the moratorium.
The commission has three members from each state. The three from Connecticut are: David Simpson, the state director of Marine Fisheries; Lance Stewart, a marine biologist; and state Rep. Craig A. Miner, R-Litchfield.
The number of Connecticut lobstermen has already declined in tandem with the lobsters. According to Niekrash, the lobster industry in Connecticut is down to about 300 lobstermen from over 1,000, and most of those who remain only fish part time.
Only 5 percent to 7 percent of American lobster comes from the Southern New England fishery. Grossman’s owner Sean Coleman said that prices might go up with a moratorium, but supplies will not be a problem.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ll still be able to get lobsters.”