The historic closure of Long Island Sound to lobster fishing this Sunday has forced a dwindling breed of lobstermen to remove their traps from the water this month and plan for an uncertain future.
For the first time ever, federal and state fisheries officials ordered the closure of the Sound fishery, from Sept. 8 through Nov. 28. Regulators say the ban, which aims to cut harvesting by 10 percent in the Southern New England Fishery, is necessary to help rebuild a lobster population in sharp decline over the past decade, including record low surveys in the last four years, officials say. Lobster traps, 50-pound contraptions also known as pots, must be out of the water by Sept. 22, and stay out through Nov. 14.
For veteran lobsterman John German, 65, of Brookhaven, it means hauling out and storing 500 pots as he faces the loss of as much as $10,000 in income, he said. German, president of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen's Association, a fishermen's group, predicted the biggest impact would be not on the lobsters but the dozen or so lobstermen who still actively fish.
"We knew it was coming; we're not happy about it," he said, calling the closure a "feel-good" gesture by regulators. "It's going to impact guys. It's going to shut us down at a somewhat productive time."
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, working with a mandate from the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, notified lobstermen of the closure a year ago.
"The timing of the closure will decrease fishing effort during a time when water temperature is high and stressful to lobster," the agency responded to Newsday questions. Experts have blamed the population decline on warmer waters, predator fish and insecticide-tainted runoff water into the Sound.
While most pots must be removed, officials say the rules take into account the economic impact on fishermen by allowing those who have permits to use the traps for other species such as black fish, black sea bass and conch to keep them in the water.
The DEC said some lobster permit holders may keep black sea bass from their traps if they hold a foodfish license and their pots have the appropriate size escape vents for black sea bass," the DEC said. But one longtime Montauk lobsterman blasted a quirk in the new rules that restricts those who have permits to harvest lobsters in the Sound and another region from fishing in either during the closures.
Vinny Damm, 47, of Montauk, a 30-year lobsterman who has fished in both the Sound and in deeper waters of the Atlantic known as Area 4, said the rules would prevent him from moving his 880 lobster pots to deep offshore waters on the South Shore now that the Sound is closing.
Regulators earlier this year closed the Atlantic harvest, from Feb. 1 through March 31.
"I can't see how they can discriminate against us to fish that area," he said. "I've got a family to support."
The DEC said the rule is needed "to prevent lobstermen [from] shifting their effort and avoiding any reduction in harvest."
But some lobstermen, citing the dwindling number of lobsters and the tightening rules, have already pulled up stakes. Phil Karlin, 72, a Riverhead fisherman who once fished 1,500 lobster pots in the Sound, has converted some traps to harvest black sea bass and other species. The closure, he said, will require that he remove only around 40 pots.
"It's good they're giving it a rest," he said. "Right now, to make a living just lobstering, it's not feasible. It's been very slow."
Karlin has participated in a Cornell Cooperative Extension effort to remove abandoned lobster pots from the water as fishing declines to restore habitat. More than 9,000 "ghost" lobster traps were removed from the Sound between 2010 and 2013, and lobstermen who help are paid upward of $750 a trip.
Meanwhile, the local market has been flooded with lobsters from Maine, New Hampshire and Canada. German, the lobster association head, said he believes powerful interests on the Atlantic fishing counsel pushed for the closure of the Sound to increase their reach into Long Island. Local grocery chains like Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace have been selling lobsters for as little as $3.99 a pound this summer.
"In the end it [the closure] is about market share," German charged. But even those who disagree with the way regulators are managing the fishery acknowledge it's impossible to make a living on the Sound just on lobsters.
Bob Zickmund, 57, a longtime lobsterman from Mount Sinai, has whittled the number of traps he actively fishes to around 250. He once fished 2,500. These days, he splits his time between fishing and landscaping while his son, who inherited Zickmund's father's lobster license, now works full time for Brookhaven Town.
German predicted the measures will have an impact -- on the remaining "hard-core" lobstermen who are "just hanging on."
"I wish they [regulators] would go away and leave us alone," he said.
The DEC says the closure and other measures will be studied next year "to see if they meet the 10 percent harvest reduction, or if the measures need to be revised."