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Regulators weigh new measures to rebuild Long Island lobster population

Long Island lobstermen face the likelihood of an extended closed season this winter as regulators work to save a lobster population that has seen severe declines.

Tempers occasionally flared at a meeting in Setauket Wednesday as an aging and dwindling workforce of lobstermen faced hard choices presented by state regulators from New York and Connecticut.

Fisheries managers say the one way to rebuild the lobster population is to increase the number of eggs released into the waters of Southern New England, which includes the Long Island Sound, and where lobster landings have fallen off sharply in recent years.

Regulators presented lobstermen with choices that included a reduction in the number of lobster traps they can set, a shorter fishing season and a reduction in the size of keeper lobsters. “We’ll do whatever we have to do not to increase the gauge size,” said lobsterman George Doll, the Northport mayor, speaking of the device used to measure keeper lobsters.

Other choices weren’t well received. Lobstermen cited years of tightening restrictions and a failure of the measures to stave off a population decline. They noted that measures, once implemented, are never reversed.

Differences of opinion were sometimes sharp, as some criticized the Department of Environmental Conservation for its management of the fishery over decades.

“The whole thing has been a fiasco from the get-go,” said Mattituck lobsterman Jim King, who argued a reduction in the thousands of traps lobsterman have been able to fish over the years could have forestalled today’s population dropoff. “The trap allotment for one person is absurd—3,000 pots. You could make a good living with 200 pots. It’s crazy.”

Jim Gilmore, director of the DEC’s division of marine resources, pointed to climate change and warmer waters as the reason for the lobster’s more recent declines. “The Long Island Sound gets warmer and warmer every year,” he said. “It’s probably not overfishing that’s bringing this impact,” he said, citing a healthy lobster fishery in Maine and Canada.

Kim McKown, who heads the DEC’s crustacean unit, noted that lobstermen are only fishing around 10 percent of the state’s trap allotment, or around 18,000 pots. While regulators are looking at ways to reduce traps, there’s concern that any pickup in fishing could lead those who retain licenses but haven’t fished to return, negating the efforts.

She said the DEC and its Connecticut counterpart will take recommendations from Wednesday’s meeting and analyze the likely outcomes to determine if it meets regulator’s mandate that egg production be increased by 5 percent. “Our job is to come up with options for them,” she said of lobstermen.

The new rules, which lobstermen and regulators are expected to agree on in coming weeks, will be finalized by August and take effect starting in 2018.

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