American lobster (Homarus americanus) is a bottom-dwelling crustacean widely distributed over the continental shelf of North America. In the inshore waters of the US, it is most abundant from Maine through New Jersey, with abundance declining from north to south. Offshore, it occurs from Maine through North Carolina. Three stock units have been identified based on regional differences in life history parameters. They are the Gulf of Maine (GOM), Georges Bank (GBK), and Southern New England (SNE).
Reproduction and growth are linked to the molting cycle. Lobsters periodically shed their shell to allow their body size to increase and mating to occur. Males deposit sperm in recently molted females who store it internally until extrusion, which can be delayed for up to two years. When extruded, the eggs are fertilized and attached to the underside of the female, where they are carried for 9 to 11 months before hatching. Females carrying eggs are often called “berried” females. Eggs hatch from mid-May to mid-June, and the new lobster larvae begin their 5 stage transition. Larvae are planktonic for the first 4 stages, swimming at or near the water surface. At the fifth larval stage, juveniles sink to the ocean floor where they remain for the rest of their lifetime. Lobsters reach market size in about four to nine years, depending on water temperature and other biological factors.
American lobster is one of the most valuable commercial fisheries along the Atlantic coast, with an ex-vessel value of $460 million in 2013. The fishery has seen an incredible expansion in effort and landings since the late 1940s and early 1950s, when landings varied around 25 million pounds. Over The past two decades, coastwide landings have increased substantially, rising to 57 million pounds in 1993 to a peak of 150 million pounds in 2012 and 2013.
A majority (~90%) of the commercial landings of lobster are caught in state waters (0-3 miles from shore), with Maine and Massachusetts accounting for 85% and 10% of the landings, respectively. Lobster pots are the main method of harvest, although gill nets, otter trawls and dredges also account for some landings. In 2013, approximately 95% of the coastwide landings have come from GOM. SNE and GBK each accounted for 2-3% of the landings.
Lobster is recreationally caught by anglers using lobster pots or by hand while SCUBA diving. However, the magnitude of these recreational landings is unknown.
MA lobsterman, Dave Casoni, harvesting the day's catch. Photo credit: MA DMF.
The 2009 peer-reviewed stock assessment report presents a mixed picture of lobster abundance throughout its US range. The report indicates record high abundance and recruitment (number of lobsters entering the fishery) throughout most of GOM and GBK. The SNE stock is in poor condition with continued low abundance and recruitment. Further analysis on the SNE stock has found that the reproductive potential and abundance of the SNE stock is continuing to fall lower than data presented in the 2009 assessment. The SNE stock is critically depleted and abundance indices are at all time lows.
Based on biological reference points, adopted in 2010, GOM and GBK stocks are in favorable condition, with exploitation at a moderate level in the GOM and favorable in GBK. The SNE is in an unfavorable condition, requiring Board action to rebuild the stock and address the low levels of recruitment. The next benchmark stock assessment will be finalized and peer-reviewed in 2015.
American lobster is managed under Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and its Addenda (I - XXIII). The goal of the American lobster management plan is to increase egg production. Amendment 3 establishes seven lobster conservation management areas (LCMAs): Inshore and offshore GOM (Area 1), Inshore SNE (Area 2), Offshore Waters (Area 3), Inshore and offshore Northern Mid-Atlantic (Area 4), Inshore and offshore Southern Mid-Atlantic (Area 5), New York and Connecticut State Waters (Area 6), and Outer Cape Cod (Area 7). Lobster Conservation Management Teams (LCMTs), composed of industry representatives, were formed for each management area. The LCMTs are charged with advising the American Lobster Board and recommending changes to the management plan within their areas. The commercial fishery is primarily controlled through minimum/maximum size limits, trap limits, and v-notching of egg-bearing females.
Given the critically depleted condition of the SNE stock, the American Lobster Board approved Addenda XVII - XXII, which implement a suite of measures to reduce exploitation and allow the SNE stock to rebuild. These measures include a v-notching program, trap reductions, closed seasons for certain areas, and a trap consolidation/transferability program. Throughout 2014, the American Lobster Board monitored the progress of the SNE LCMAs in achieving the required 10% reduction in exploitation in order to address rebuilding. Using landings as a proxy for exploitation, Technical Committee review of the implemented measures within SNE found LCMAs 2, 3 and 6 met the required reductions while LCMAs 4 and 5 did not. LCMA 4 submitted a proposal for a closed season from April 30 through May 31. This proposal was approved by the Management Board for implementation in both LCMAs 4 and 5.
In October 2014, the American Lobster Board initiated the development of Draft Addendum XXIV, which addresses inconsistencies between state and federal American lobster management plans, including alignment between state and federal measures for full business conservation tax, trap transfer increments, and dual permits transferability rules. Final action on the Draft Addendum is scheduled to occur in May 2015.
Also in October, the American Lobster Board initiated development of a Jonah Crab FMP to address the increased market demand for, and resultant fishing pressure on, Jonah crab. Given the absence of state and federal management programs and a coastwide stock assessment for Jonah crab, there is concern current harvest may compromise the sustainability of the resource. Since Jonah crab is commonly caught as bycatch in the American lobster fishery, the new plan will fall under the purview of the American Lobster Board. The Board will work closely with the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) as it develops the Draft Jonah Crab FMP. The Draft FMP, which is expected to be completed in 2015, will include management objectives, proposed commercial and recreational management measures, monitoring requirements, and recommendations for federal waters fisheries.