A proposed five-year ban on lobster fishing in Long Island Sound and other waters south of Cape Cod may take a backseat to other measures - such as reducing the lobster catch by 50 percent to 75 percent - steps local lobstermen say would still inflict significant damage to their businesses.
Regulators appeared to back off the controversial moratorium at a meeting this week in Rhode Island attended by dozens of lobstermen, including several who traveled from Long Island.
At the meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's lobster board agreed to take a closer look at other ways to reverse a decline in the Southern New England lobster population. Among the options: leave rules as they are, increase the minimum size at which lobsters may be harvested, or shut down fishing in certain areas or for certain months.
"We wanted to assure the public that a moratorium is not imminent and that we had other tools in the toolbox," said lobster board member Pat Augustine, one of three New York representatives to the multistate fisheries commission.
Still, the mood Friday was relatively gloomy among Long Island lobstermen who attended.
John German of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen's Association and others questioned the scientific basis for any cutbacks. They said biologists on the lobster board's technical committee had "cherry-picked" data to make the situation seem more dire. Predators like scup and spiny dogfish killed more baby lobsters than fishermen, they said.
"It's been proven that we're not the cause of any of this," said Al Schaffer, 48, of Montauk. "The cuts they're talking about, seasonal closures, trap limits . . . it's basically making it unfeasible for us to fish."
The technical committee recommended the ban earlier this year, saying the region's lobster population was the lowest since the mid-1980s. While the stock is no longer overfished, scientists are worried by the low rate of young lobsters that reached legal harvest size between 1998 and 2005.
"If you don't have any babies or females reproducing, then essentially sometime down the road you're not going to have any lobsters replacing the ones you're taking out of the fishery," said James Gilmore, marine resources bureau chief for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The ban could still be instituted if the board decides other methods don't go far enough to ensure survival. In the meantime, an external panel of scientists will review the report calling for the moratorium to determine whether its conclusions are valid.
Lobsterman Jim King, 68, of Mattituck, said he's seen an uptick in young lobsters in the past few years. Still, he said, more restrictions may be needed to restore the fishery, adding, "Nobody likes them but they do work."