A proposal to increase the minimum harvestable size of lobsters was put on hold by a federal commission Tuesday because of regulatory conflicts that could affect processors and dealers.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission postponed taking action on the proposal until its annual meeting in November to allow time to resolve a conflict with regulations that govern fishery management in U.S. federal waters.

The plan, called Addendum 27, proposes conservation measures to increase protection of the spawning stock of lobsters in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, where juvenile lobster counts have declined in recent years. The commission’s technical committee determined that increasing the minimum harvestable size of lobsters would have the greatest likelihood of increasing reproductive potential. The options for consideration for Area 1, where most Maine fishermen fish, include increasing minimum sizes according to a predetermined schedule, or having them triggered by certain declines in juvenile lobster populations.

The commission is also considering standardizing conservation measures across the three management areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which regulates fishery management, prohibits the import and sale of lobsters smaller than the minimum possession size under the commission’s Fishery Management Plan. If the addendum is approved and includes increasing the minimum legal size in Management Area 1 from 3 1/4 to 3 5/16 inches – the length of the carapace – it would no longer be legal to import lobsters from Canada, where the minimum legal size is 3 1/4 inches. The carapace is the shell that covers the lobster’s midsection from the eye sockets to the beginning of its tail.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to dealers and processors within Maine who probably handle between 50 percent and 75 percent of the product that comes through and learned clearly what the impact would be on those businesses, especially in the springtime of the year,” said Department of Marine Resources Commissioner and ASMFC member Pat Keliher. “It doesn’t seem like a lot when you’re talking about a (minimum) size change of a sixteenth of an inch, but if they’re not allowed to bring that product in at certain times of the year – especially considering the increased yield that they have out of those harder shell lobsters – it’s a massive economic hit to them, so it reverberates through the market chain.”


The plan’s development team will research whether the conflict can be resolved by amending the wording in the Fishery Management Plan from “possession” size to “harvest” size, rather than attempting to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act through legislation, a time-consuming process. One commissioner suggested asking Canada to increase its minimum size at the same time.

Caitlin Starks, a senior fishery management plan coordinator, said the development team would offer recommendations for how to address the conflict at the November meeting. If the board adopts one of those recommendations and the issue is resolved, then the document may be put out for public comment. The commission could then take it up this winter for final approval. Also, Starks said, by November the 2021 juvenile lobster counts will be available for the commission to consider when discussing potential trigger points for management action.

Another concern was that recent legal rulings and upcoming federal regulations to protect endangered right whales might also positively affect spawning stock. Some suggested that those impacts should be taken into account in the lobster-size debate, while others thought the issues should be kept separate.

“The indices are turning the wrong way,” said Steve Train, another ASMFC commissioner from Maine, referring to the juvenile lobster counts. “I’m going to support the motion to delay because it’s an enforcement issue that needs to be straightened out before this can happen. I do think convoluting this with possible whale action is the wrong reason not to do it. I think we need to move forward with this if we see those triggers.”

David Borden, a commissioner from Rhode Island, urged quick action to avoid repeating southern New England’s experience, where after a period of declines in numbers of juvenile lobsters the entire lobster stock dropped precipitously.

“The longer we go with this, the more difficult it’s going to be to do this,” he said, because even minor changes will have greater negative economic impact if the stock declines further.

“The time to do this is when the resource is in relatively good shape,” he said. “When it’s in horrible shape, like the southern New England resource, it becomes that much more painful.”

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