Lobster Fishing: Revenues, Rules and Stocks

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European lobster

The American Lobster is commercially valuable as food. Targeted by American and Canadian lobster fishermen target, it is a source of live seafood and processed products such as lobster rolls and lobster ravioli. The meat is found in the claws, legs, and its large abdominal muscle commonly called the tail. The vast majority of the world's American lobster comes from waters off New England and eastern Canada, where the crustaceans are both vital to the local economy and a cultural marker. [Source: Associated Press, Animal Diversity]

The lobster fishery predominantly uses pots and traps, but other gear may include gillnets, trawls, and by hand by divers. The U.S. lobster fishery is also one of the most lucrative in the country. In 2021, the commercial landings in the U.S. of American lobster totaled 61 million kilograms (134.7 million) pounds and were valued at $925 million, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. [Source: NOAA]

Most fishermen use traps to harvest lobster. They bait rectangular, wire-mesh traps then lower them to the ocean floor in water 4.5 to 300 meters (15 to 1,000 feet) deep. A buoy that marks the trap’s location is attached to the trap line. Fishermen haul the traps back to the surface every few days to check their catch, although the frequency varies depending on the season and the location. Recreational fishermen catch lobsters in coastal waters with pots and by hand while scuba diving. Those with a federal lobster permit may harvest lobster in federal waters, but the lobster cannot be sold.

The fishing rate is at recommended levels. Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch. Traps can incidentally catch finfish and invertebrates (such as crabs and conch). Regulations require traps to be configured with biodegradable escape panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing (lost gear that continues to capture lobster and other species and may pose a hazard to other marine species). Escape panels must be large enough to reduce bycatch of undersized lobsters.

The Northeast/Mid-Atlantic American lobster trap/pot fishery can incidentally entangle large whales. To reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to fisheries interactions, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan was implemented in 1997. The plan continues to evolve as we learn more about why whales become entangled and how fishing practices might be modified to reduce the risk of entanglement. Lobstermen must follow a number of regulations to protect large whales from fishing gear. For example, lobstermen must use sinking groundlines between traps to reduce the amount of line in the water column, which reduces the potential for whales and other protected species to become entangled. In addition, lobster permit holders are required to haul their active traps at least once every 30 days.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems

Lobster Populations in U.S. Waters

American Lobster
The American lobster’s range is divided into two stock areas and seven management areas. The two stocks of American lobster — 1) Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, and 2) Southern New England — support both inshore and offshore fisheries. The Gulf of Maine and Southern New England areas are predominantly inshore fisheries, while the Georges Bank area is predominantly an offshore fishery. Most U.S. harvest is caught in inshore waters. [Source: NOAA]

The American Lobster fishery occurs from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. But there’s a reason we associate Maine with lobsters — the state has led American lobster landings for over 3 decades. Massachusetts is the second leading producer. Together, these two states produce 93 percent of the total U.S. American lobster harvest, and 93 percent of the coast-wide landings come from the Gulf of Maine lobster stock.

There is near record high stock abundance in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. However, since 2012, Young of Year surveys in the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank stock have shown consistent declines, which could indicate future declines in recruitment and landings. According to the 2020 stock assessment conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), there is record high stock abundance in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, and record low abundance and continued recruitment failures in Southern New England. The Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stock is not overfished. However, the ASMFC considers the Southern New England stock severely depleted due to environmental factors and fishing pressure. Neither stock is subject to overfishing.

Lobster Fishing Management

The American lobster resource and fishery are cooperatively managed by the states and the NOAA Fisheries under the framework of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. There are seven Lobster Conservation Management Areas (Areas), which are labeled as Area 1, Area 2, Area 3, Area 4, Area 5, Area 6, and Outer Cape Cod Area. Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages the American lobster resource in Canadian territorial waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean.[Source: NOAA]

Calico-colored lobster, from NPR

The states and NOAA Fisheries cooperatively manage the American lobster resource and fishery under the framework of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Each lobster harvesting state has three members on the ASMFC lobster management board, and NOAA Fisheries has one representative on the board. Each state, and NOAA Fisheries, has one vote when deliberating management measures for American lobster. The management board looks to industry advisors to provide recommendations for managing the fishery to meet management objectives.

States have jurisdiction for implementing measures in state waters (within 3 nautical miles of shore), while NOAA Fisheries implements complementary regulations for the American lobster fishery in offshore federal waters (3 to 200 nautical miles from shore).

There are seven Lobster Conservation Management Teams, one for each management area. These teams, made up of industry representatives, recommend measures to address the specific needs in their respective management areas. Federal waters contain portions of six of the seven management areas. Only Area 6 is totally within state waters (Long Island Sound, which consists of New York and Connecticut state waters).

Lobster Fishing Regulations

Lobster harvesting is managed in state waters (within 3 nautical miles of shore) under the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster. Each management area has unique regulations that include: 1) Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobster than can be harvested. 2) Trap limits control fishing effort. Each lobster vessel is limited to either a vessel-based trap allocation based on its historical fishing practices, or an area-wide trap cap (the maximum number of traps a vessel may fish in a specific area). 3) Measures to protect egg-bearing females — fishermen may not harvest them and, in most areas, if one is caught in their trap, they must notch its tail fin in a “v” shape before returning it to the water. 4) Prohibition on possession of lobster meat and lobster parts (lobsters must be landed live and whole to ensure they are of legal size). 5) Gear restrictions, trap configuration requirements, and prohibition on using spears to fish for lobsters. 6) Restrictions on the amount of lobster that can be harvested with non-trap gear. 7) Monitoring and reporting requirements. [Source: NOAA]

A trap transfer program was initiated in 2015 in a subset of the management areas that allows Federal permit holders to purchase partial trap allocation from other authorized permit holders. Others may sell allocation to other Federal lobster permit holders to downsize their own fishing operations and allow other permit holders to gain access to the trap fishery in certain management areas.

Managed in federal waters (3 to 200 nautical miles offshore) under regulations implemented through the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, including: 1) Fishermen must have a permit to harvest lobster. A temporary moratorium on the issuance of federal lobster permits, which limits the amount of available permits to control the number of fishermen harvesting lobster, was extended indefinitely in 1999. 2) Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobsters that can be harvested, which varies by management area.

layout of lobster pots on the ocean floor

3) Prohibition on possession of lobster meat and lobster parts (lobsters must be landed live and whole to ensure they are of legal size). 4) Measures to protect egg-bearing females — fishermen may not harvest them and, in most areas, if one is caught in their trap, they must notch its tail fin in a “v” shape before returning it to the water. 5) Gear restrictions (trap size, gear marking requirements, escape vents, and ghost panels). 6) Trap limits, which vary among management areas.

To improve data collection in the fishery, all federal lobster dealers must submit weekly electronic reports for all lobsters they purchase from fishermen with federal permits. Federal lobster permit holders are not required to report landings unless they have another Federal fishery permit, in addition to their Federal lobster permit, that requires landings reports (such as, Northeast multispecies permit). Area-specific measures have been approved to reduce fishing exploitation on the Southern New England stock, including biological and effort control management measures. Regulations require biodegradable escape panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing (when lost gear continues to capture lobster and other species). Escape panels must be large enough to reduce bycatch of undersized lobsters.

Lobster Fishing Given 'Red List' Warning Because of Danger to Whales

Whales can suffer injuries and fatalities when they become entangled in the gear that connects to lobster traps on the ocean floor. In 2022, Associated Press reported: The lobster fishing industry has come under scrutiny from Seafood Watch, which rates the sustainability of different seafoods, added the American and Canadian lobster fisheries to its “red list” of species to avoid because of the threat of entanglement in fishing gear. The organization, based at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, said in a report that the fishing industry is a danger to North Atlantic right whales because “current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species.” [Source: Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, September 8, 2022]

The North Atlantic right whales number less than 340 and entanglement is one of the two biggest threats they face, along with collisions with ships, scientists with the NOAA and other groups have said. The population of the giant animals, which were decimated during the commercial whaling era generations ago, has fallen in recent years.

Members of the lobster fishing industry, which is also coping with increased federal fishing restrictions to protect the whales, pushed back against the Seafood Watch rating. The lobster industry in Maine, where most of the U.S.'s lobster comes to land, has not had a documented interaction with a right whale in almost two decades, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. “Lobster is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to the effective stewardship practices handed down through generations of lobstermen. These include strict protections for both the lobster resource and right whales,” McCarron said.

Environmental groups said Seafood Watch's decision places a spotlight on the fishery and the need to do more to protect whales. “Fishery managers must increase protections to save North Atlantic right whales so seafood retailers, consumers, and restaurants can put American lobster and crab back on the menu,” Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan said.

Retailers Pull Lobster After after 'Red List' Warning

In 2022, some retailers began pulling lobster off their menus after Seafood Watch said that lobster fishing poses too much of a risk to rare whales and should be avoided. Patrick Whittle of Associated Press wrote: Thousands of businesses use Seafood Watch's recommendations to inform seafood buying decisions, and many have pledged to avoid any items that appear on the red list. [Source: Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, September 8, 2022]

A spokesperson for Blue Apron, the New York meal kit retailer, said after the release of the report that the company no longer offers lobster. HelloFresh, the Germany-based meal kit company that is the largest such company operating in the U.S., also pledged shortly after the announcement to stop selling lobster. “HelloFresh is committed to responsible sourcing and follows guidelines from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program,” said Saskia Leisewitz, a spokesperson for HelloFresh.

Seafood Watch assigns ratings of “best choice,” “good alternative” and “avoid” to more than 2,000 seafood items based on how sustainably they are managed. The organization's recommendations have been influential in the past, such as when it red-listed the Louisiana shrimp fishery, prompting efforts to better protect sea turtles. The fishery was later removed from the red list.

Lobster Diver Swallowed and Spit Out By Humpback Whale

In June 2021, Lobster diver Michael Packard said he was swallowed and then spit out by a humpback whale. The Huffington Post reported: “Around 8 a.m., the 56-year-old lobster diver jumped from his boat off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, to check one of his traps. Packard was 45 feet below the ocean’s surface when he suddenly “felt this huge bump and everything went dark,” he told Boston-based CBS affiliate WBZ. [Source: David Moye, Huffington Post, June 12, 2021]

“At first, Packard said, he feared he was the victim of a shark attack, but after noticing a lack of sharp teeth, he realized he was in the mouth of a whale that he believes was trying to swallow him. “All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys, they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Packard, who was still breathing through his regulator, said he struggled to get free. That apparently caused the whale to shake its head. Within 30 or 40 seconds, he said, the animal surfaced and ejected Packard from its mouth.

“Packard’s shipmate, Josiah Mayo, says he saw Packard being expelled from the whale and fished him out of the water. “My first thought was I can’t believe I got out of that situation. My second thought was for how injured I was,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “Although Packard was taken to a local hospital, his injuries turned out to be less severe than he first thought ― just a lot of soft tissue damage.

“Marine mammal expert Peter Corkeron of the New England Aquarium told the Boston Herald that whales like the one that apparently swallowed Packard don’t actually eat people: They are “gulp feeders” that “slurp up as much as they can and then swallow it down.” Corkeron suspects the whale was just trying to get fish and had no intention of turning Packard into breakfast. He also said there’s evidence suggesting that humpbacks can be “altruistic” toward humans, which may be why the creature swam to the surface before spitting out Packard. “It’s perfectly believable that the whale was trying to help him,” Corkeron said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated April 2023

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