Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Are there More Lobsters in the Sound this Summer or Not?

The difficulty of knowing what’s going on under the surface of Long Island Sound is illustrated perfectly by a story in today’s Journal News, the paper I used to work for, in Westchester County. The issue is lobster abundance, and the question is: are there more lobsters than there were after the big die-off of 1999 or has the population failed to rebound so far?

The answer seems to be yes.

A handful of lobstermen say that there are more lobsters this year than in other recent years. And someone from the New York State DEC says they’ve been hearing anecdotally that the lobster catch is somewhat larger.

On the other hand, some lobstermen say the reports of more lobsters are wrong and misleading. And one of the lobstermen who thinks things are improving also said that in some areas there are no lobsters to be found at all:

… despite the good signs, there were none left in the area around the Bronx-Westchester border, which is filled with deep holes where lobsters once sought shelter, making it the best spot in the region for seeking the delicacies.

"There's nothing from New Rochelle to City Island," Mueller said. "There's not a lobster to be found."

My bias is with the marine fisheries biologists of the Connecticut DEP (that is, I’m biased in favor of scientific inquiry over anecdotal evidence; both are important but they tell you different things). The same biologists – Penny Howell and Dave Simpson – have been systematically keeping track of fish and lobster abundance since the days of the severe hypoxia crisis in the late 1980s. Here’s what the Journal News reports, citing Penny:

While numbers have not been refined, they appear to be little better than last year's trawls, which showed it to be the third worst year of the 21 years the agency has been doing the survey. … they showed an average of 2.5 lobsters in 2004, down from the record, 18.5 in 1998. The numbers had averaged about 7 in the late 1990s before reaching the record. Since 1998, the numbers have dropped off severely and steadily.

This year's number will be slightly higher than last year's, but still will be less than 3, Howell said.

I sent off an e-mail to Penny Howell this morning, and she responded with some additional insight:

The only good news is that 2002-2004 seem to be the bottom and 2005 may be just a bit higher, but obviously it's too early to be optimistic or sure of an end in the downward trend. Whatever happened in 1999 has played through the entire age structure and will take years to recoup - if conditions remain favorable which is still open to question. The only thing we can say for sure is that the fishery is not the cause - but they must be part of the solution.

What seems to be beyond dispute is that if the population is rebounding, it is doing so very slowly. And it will do so, as Penny says, only if water conditions remain favorable.


Blogger sandy said...

I'm a little confused. Why is Penny Howell saying there are more lobster? Is it just anecdotal? or is it because it's just better this year than last?

1:14 PM  
Blogger Tom Andersen said...

She's saying that DEP's regular research trawls have been catching more lobsters this year than last year but only slightly more. And in any case, the last few years the catch has been far lower than in the 1990s. Some lobsterman are saying there are more, some are saying there aren't more.

12:30 PM  

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