Danny Staffieri had spent 20 years as lobsterman on Long Island Sound when he boarded his boat, the Isabella Leigh, last December for what would be his last trip hauling lobster traps.
Of the 300 lobster pots he pulled that day, he landed just six lobsters he could legally keep -- a dismal catch by any standard.
Last month, Staffieri, 39, of Smithtown, became the latest in a long line of Long Island lobstermen to call it quits. The Isabella Leigh was sold to a Mattituck fisherman who will use it primarily to fish for conchs. "There's nothing left," Staffieri said. "You go out all day for 30, 40, 50 pounds. I'm done. I couldn't make any money."
The decision by state regulators last month to close Long Island Sound to lobster fishing for several months next year -- and for an undefined period into the future -- forced some who were barely making ends meet to make hard choices. This fall, regulators will begin considering another restriction, requiring a 25 percent reduction in the number of traps they fish, perhaps by next year.
The measures are aimed at rebuilding a lobster population most lobstermen and regulators say is severely depleted. Warmer waters, insecticide-laden storm runoff and predator fish species all are blamed.
"Critically depleted," is how a committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission described Long Island Sound and adjacent Southern New England lobster populations in a 2010 report. Committee members briefly considered a five-year moratorium on lobster fishing in the region. The measure was discarded in favor of the partial closure of the Sound and other areas.
Kim McKown, head of the crustacean unit for the state Department of Environmental Conservation's marine resources division, said the three-month closure will be revisited in 2014, but will remain in place "until we start seeing some rebuilding." She acknowledged the impact on local lobsterman, but said the steps are necessary to restore the species.
Alternatives to regulation
Lobstermen question the population figures and say what's needed is a thorough analysis of what's happening to lobsters in the Sound, not more regulation. Most say they have stopped allowing DEC researchers on their boats to take lobster surveys, convinced the data is not being used.
"Leave it alone and let economics take its course," said John German, president of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen's Association. "It always drives people in and out of this business."
Environmentalists also are questioning closure of the Sound to lobster fishing.
"Increased water temperatures and poor water quality are the root cause of declining lobsters, not the harvesting by the few lobstermen we have left," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
The Marine Fisheries committee also said in its report that overfishing of lobsters "is currently not occurring" in the region.
German said the number of active lobstermen drops each year. While more than 300 have state licenses, German estimates the number actively pulling pots on the Sound at between at between 12 and 15. His monthly Lobstermen's Association meetings, once attended by more than 100 people, now max out at 25 to 30. The DEC issued 375 resident permits in 2009, down from a high of 1,265 in 1994, but the bulk do not actively fish.
"There's not too many [of us] left," said German, 64, who has fished for lobsters all his life and often leads spirited, if heated, discussions at meetings with state regulators in Setauket. "The impact they have is minimal."
German spoke last week from his boat in Mount Sinai Harbor, standing beside crates of conch, large sea snails that now make up a larger portion of his income than lobsters. He said he and many other lobstermen have had to diversify to make ends meet.
For years, regulators have been tightening the rules on lobster fishing, requiring lobstermen to throw back egg-laden females and lobsters that are either too large or small, and to increase the size of the escape vent on traps so that smaller ones can exit unharmed.
The dozen or so men who continue to actively fish the waters around Long Island offer varying tales of the state of the fishery, and the need for regulations.
Enjoying his 'best' year
In the waters off Fishers Island last week, Montauk lobsterman Al Schaffer eased his 31-foot lobster boat, the Leatherneck, along the morning's first line of buoys, gaffed and secured the line to a stainless steel winch, and began the haul. A total of 72 pots that morning netted him more than 200 pounds of legal lobsters -- those with at least a 3 3 / 8-inch carapace.
"This is my best year since 2001," said Schaffer. "But they regulators] are going to find another reason to press the panic button."
Schaffer, 49, said he doesn't believe strict new measures ordered by the DEC, which manages the state lobster fishery under a mandate from federal regulators, will boost the lobster population. On the waters last week, as always, he measured and tossed back more than half the lobsters he pulled up in his traps.
German said the squeeze on lobster fishing has led most who make their living on the water to turn to other fisheries. But there are moratoriums on other licenses, such as those for conchs. Staffiere said if he could get a conch license, "I'd go back in a heartbeat . . . They should give full-time fishermen something else to do."
Robert Zickmund, a Mount Sinai lobsterman, said the lobster scarcity and the state restrictions have led him to sharply curtail his operations. On a good day he'll take in 100 pounds of lobster.
Zickmund has been unable to harvest conchs, a lobster predator, because of the moratorium on conch licenses, enacted in 2004. He was locked out because he neglected to get a license in 2002.
Last week, Zickmund joined with a dozen other Long Island fishermen in signing a fisherman's Bill of Rights. The group is contemplating a class-action lawsuit to end fish-permit moratoriums.
But the DEC's McKown said the "continuous" decline in the lobster stock since 2003 requires new measures, particularly in light of the scarcity of young lobsters. "We need to start the rebuilding process but also are cognizant these are people's livelihoods," she said.
Roger C. Tollefsen, president of the New York Seafood Council, representing the state seafood industry, including harvesters and processors, said regulators are basing the call for new restrictions on the lobster population's decline since 1999. But the rise in the population leading up to that point was an anomaly, he said, and what's more realistic is to look at the longer-term population.
"We've had a stable resource for 100 years," said Tollefsen, noting that Long Island is now a net importer of lobsters, primarily from Canada and Maine. Regulators "chose the peak years and said, 'We lost 90 percent of what we got.' They're choosing as their average an inflated number."