Long Island Sound will be closed to lobster fishing for the first time in its history late in 2013, as regulators try the most severe of a series of measures to rebuild a severely depleted stock.
A dozen lobstermen attended a meeting by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Setauket to discuss options on which specific days next fall the closure would start and end -- roughly for three months and probably beginning after Labor Day. No dates have yet been set.
The decision to close selected areas of the Southern New England lobster fishery was handed down by the American Lobster Management Board in February. Other measures include mandatory return of egg-bearing female lobsters, and V-notching their tails to mark them so others don't take them.
Overfishing is not considered the primary reason for the sharp decline in the lobster population. Instead, warmer water temperatures -- above 68 degrees in the Sound over the past few summers -- are frequently cited, as are the presence of insecticides in runoff water and predators such as striped bass and dogfish.
No one argues that some measures are needed to rebuild the lobster stock -- once a thriving population in Long Island Sound. The lobster catch in Long Island Sound peaked in 1996 at 8.8 million pounds. By 2009, it had dropped to just under 1 million.
The number of residents fishing for lobsters has also sharply declined. According to the DEC, 375 resident permits were issued in 2009, compared with a high of 1,265 in 1994.
While generally resigned to the three-month closure, longtime lobstermen took issue with what they said was a lack of current data on lobster population surveys that led to the closure, and the financial impact it would have on their livelihoods.
"Nobody is saying the resource is in great shape," he wrote, in a statement read by lobsterman George Dahl, the mayor of Northport. "But that is not the fault of the fishermen -- we are the only constituency that can be regulated."
Kim McKown, a biologist who heads the DEC's crustacean unit, said the areas will remain closed "until we start seeing some rebuilding."
A set of proposed dates shown at the meeting on Thursday went as far as 2025, though McKown said the DEC and federal fisheries managers will reassess the survey in 2014 to see how lobsters are faring. Asked at the meeting how many surveys took place in 2012, a DEC staffer said, "Zero."
Mount Sinai lobsterman Robert Zickmund noted there's "nobody left fishing. How are you going to get the data" to do future population surveys?
"If we don't get out [on the water] enough times to get the data, they're going to have to come up with another method," McKown said, adding that population figures are extrapolated from fishermen's landing data.Long-time Mattituck lobsterman Tony DeMaula said next year's would be the first closure of the Sound to lobstering in his 52 years on the water. "I don't think it needs to happen," he said of the closure, noting that only about 25 people fish for lobsters in the Sound -- including in New York and Connecticut, which face a similar closure.