Scientists, managers, and fishermen are concerned about the habitat conditions for American lobster in inshore southern New England waters, particularly in Long Island Sound. Scientists believe that a combination of warmer water temperatures, hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen levels), and other stress factors resulted in die-offs of lobster in western Long Island Sound in late 1999 and in 2002. If these conditions continue, future die-offs are possible. Researchers also believe that increased water temperatures in southern New England may be driving lobsters to cooler offshore waters and disrupting the settlement of larvae in traditional coastal areas.
- Ocean perch
- Sea Bass
- Turbot (Greenland)
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U.S. wild-caught from Maine to Virginia
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Measuring an American lobster.LAUNCH GALLERY
Fishermen have been harvesting the iconic American lobster since colonial times. Both Native Americans and colonists caught this abundant resource by hand and used them for food, bait, and even fertilizer. One colonist wrote that the lobster’s “plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten,” an ironic statement considering that today the meat of the American lobster is so highly prized that it supports one of the most intense and valuable commercial fisheries in North America, with revenues in the hundreds of millions.
With this long history of fishing also comes a long history of monitoring and management. As markets grew and commercial fisheries expanded along the northeast coast in the late 1800s, people involved in the fishery noticed catch rates and the size of harvested lobsters began to fall, an indication that the lobster populations might be declining. States enacted a number of regulations to halt this decline and maintain these valuable fisheries, restricting the size of lobster that could be harvested and when lobster could be harvested. Maine also prohibited harvest of egg-bearing females to protect them and future generations of lobster. As populations continued to decrease despite these regulations, scientists theorized that other factors besides fishing pressure might be partly to blame. They conjectured that poor habitat conditions and predators might also have contributed to the decline.
Today, scientists face similar challenges regarding the abundance and management of lobster. Although lobster fisheries are highly regulated and harvests in some areas are at their peak, recent assessments of the lobster resource paint a mixed picture, with record high abundance and reproduction and survival rates throughout most of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, but decreasing abundance and reproduction and survival rates in southern New England. State and federal fishery managers and lobstermen are continually working on ways to ensure the continued health of this valuable resource and are developing additional harvest restrictions for the southern New England population due to concerns about its current state. Managers also recently capped the number of lobster trap permits in the primary Gulf of Maine fishing area to maintain current harvest levels and the abundance of the resource in this area.
LOCATION & HABITAT
American lobsters are found in the northwest Atlantic Ocean from Labrador to Cape Hatteras. They’re most abundant in coastal waters from Maine through New Jersey and are also common offshore out to depths of 2,300 feet from Maine through Virginia.
American lobsters live on the ocean floor. They live alone and are very territorial. They can live in a variety of habitats as long as there is a burrow or crevice for cover. Coastal lobsters like rocky areas where they can readily find shelter, although they’re sometimes found in mud bottoms where they can burrow. Offshore populations are most abundant along the edge of the continental shelf near underwater canyons.
Near the coast, small lobsters do not travel much, but larger ones may travel extensively. Offshore lobsters migrate during the spring anywhere from 50 miles to 190 miles.
American lobsters have a long life span. It’s difficult to determine their exact age because they shed their hard shell when they molt, leaving no evidence of age. But scientists believe some American lobsters may live to be 100 years old.
American lobsters can grow up to 44 pounds. Lobsters must periodically molt in order to grow, shedding their hard, external skeleton (shell) when they grow too large for it and forming a new one. They eat voraciously after they molt, often devouring their own recently vacated shells. Eating their shell replenishes lost calcium and helps harden their new shell.
Lobsters molt about 20 to 25 times (over 5 to 8 years) between the time they hatch and when they are able to reproduce. Usually, lobsters mate after the females molt. Males deposit sperm in the soft-shelled females. The female stores the sperm internally for up to a year. Females can have 5,000 to more than 100,000 eggs, depending on their size. The eggs are fertilized as females release them on the underside of their tails, where they carry them for 9 to 11 months. Egg-bearing females move inshore to hatch their eggs. The eggs hatch during late spring or early summer. The pelagic (free-swimming) larvae molt four times before they resemble adults and settle to the bottom. They will molt more than 20 times over a period of 5 to 8 years before they reach the minimum legal size to be harvested.
Lobster are “opportunistic feeders,” feeding on whatever prey is most available, so their diet varies regionally. Larvae and postlarvae are carnivorous and eat zooplankton (tiny floating animals) during their first year. Adults are omnivorous, feeding on crabs, mollusks, polychaete worms, sea urchins, sea stars, fish, and macroalgae. In general, a variety of bottom-dwelling species including fish, sharks, rays, skates, octopuses, and crabs feed on lobster. Young lobsters are especially vulnerable to predators. Large, hard-shelled lobsters may be immune to predators (except humans).
American lobster is a crustacean with a large shrimp-like body and 10 legs, two of which are large, strong claws. One is a big-toothed crusher claw for pulverizing shells; the other is a finer-edged ripper claw, resembling a steak knife, for tearing soft flesh. Live lobsters are not red like those you see in a restaurant or grocery store. Most are either olive-green or greenish-brown; some have orange, reddish, dark green, or black speckles and bluish colors in the joints of their appendages.
There are three stocks of lobster in U.S. waters - Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and southern New England. Generally, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission assesses the lobster stocks every 2 to 5 years. Results of stock assessments help the Commission’s lobster management board make decisions on management measures that may be needed to address problems with the lobster resource. The management board looks to industry advisors to provide recommendations for managing the fishery to meet management objectives.
The Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank lobster stocks have increased in abundance over the past 10 to 15 years. Both of these stocks are above target population levels. The southern New England stock increased in abundance from 1982 until 1997 but has since declined. Southern New England stock abundance is currently below the level scientists consider to be sustainable (overfished) and at the lowest level observed since the 1980s, with the rate of small lobsters recruiting into the fishery declining since 2000.
State scientists, in cooperation with the lobster industry, are conducting projects to assist with the effective management of the lobster resource. Many states have established “ventless trap surveys” to determine the level of juvenile lobster abundance. By removing escape vents from the lobster traps and setting them at random, researchers can assess the abundance of small lobsters and the potential for recruitment in the future. These surveys complement longstanding trawl surveys conducted by NOAA Fisheries and the states. Since trawl gear can’t effectively sample rocky or shallow coastal bottom types, the ventless trap surveys fill the data gap.
Researchers are also currently developing techniques to breed American lobsters and are analyzing the economic feasibility of commercial aquaculture of this important lobster species.
Harvesting American lobster
The three stocks of American lobster - Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and southern New England - support both inshore and offshore fisheries. The Gulf of Maine and southern New England areas are predominantly inshore fisheries, while the Georges Bank area is predominantly an offshore fishery. Most U.S. harvest is caught in inshore waters.
Most fishermen use traps to harvest lobster. They bait rectangular, wire-mesh traps then lower them to the ocean floor in water 15 to 1,000 feet deep. A buoy is attached to the trap line to mark the trap’s location. Fishermen haul the traps back to the surface every few days to check their catch, although the frequency varies depending on the season and the location.
The Northeast/Mid-Atlantic American lobster trap/pot fishery can incidentally entangle large whales (such as endangered right, humpback, and fin whales). Lobstermen follow a number of regulations to protect large whales from fishing gear. For example, lobstermen must use sinking groundlines between traps to reduce the amount of line in the water column, which reduces the potential for whales and other protected species to become entangled.
Traps can incidentally catch finfish and invertebrates (such as crabs and conch). Ghost traps (lost gear that continues to capture lobster and other species) can also be a problem in the lobster fishery. Regulations require biodegradable escape panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing. Escape panels must be large enough to reduce bycatch of undersized lobsters.
Who’s in charge? The states and NOAA Fisheries cooperatively manage the American lobster resource and fishery under the framework of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Each lobster harvesting state has three members on the ASMFC lobster management board and NOAA Fisheries has one representative on the board. Each state and NOAA Fisheries get one vote when deliberating management measures for American Lobster. States have jurisdiction for implementing measures in state waters (from the coast out to 3 miles), while NOAA Fisheries implements complementary regulations for the American lobster fishery in offshore federal waters (3 to 200 miles from shore).
Current management: The American lobster’s range is divided into seven areas for management purposes. There are seven Lobster Conservation Management Teams for each of these management areas. These teams, made up of industry representatives, recommend measures to address the specific needs of their respective management areas. Federal waters contain portions of six of the seven management areas; only Area 6 is totally within state waters (Long Island Sound, which consists of New York and Connecticut state waters).
State waters (within 3 miles of shore): Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster
Each management area has unique regulations that include:
- Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobster that can be harvested.
- Trap limits, which are a way to control fishing effort. Each lobster vessel is limited to either a vessel-based trap allocation based on its historical fishing practices, or an area-wide trap cap which is the maximum number of traps a vessel may fish in a specific area. Prohibition on the possession of egg-bearing lobsters and “v-notched lobsters” (v-notching the tail fin of egg-bearing females in a “v” shape before returning them to the water).
- Prohibition on possession of lobster meat and lobster parts (lobsters must be landed live and whole to ensure they are of legal size).
- Gear restrictions (trap configuration requirements and prohibition on using spears).
- Limits on the amount of lobster that can be harvested with non-trap gear.
- Monitoring and reporting requirements.
Federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore): Regulations implemented through the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act.
- Fishermen must have a permit to harvest lobster. Managers limit the amount of available permits to control the amount of fishermen harvesting lobster.
- Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobsters that can be harvested; these limits vary among management areas.
- Measures to protect egg-bearing females – fishermen may not harvest them and, in most areas, if one is caught in their trap, they must notch its tail fin in a “v” shape before returning it to the water.
- Gear restrictions (trap size, gear marking requirements, escape vents, and ghost panels).
- Trap limits, which vary among management areas.
- To improve data collection in the fishery, all federal lobster dealers must submit weekly electronic reports for all lobsters they purchase from fishermen with federal permits.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages the American lobster resource in Canadian territorial waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean.
Commercial harvest in 2010 totaled 115.4 million pounds. There’s a reason we associate Maine with lobsters – the state led in American lobster landings for the 29th year in a row, with landings of 94.7 million pounds in 2010. Massachusetts was the second leading producer, with landings of nearly 12.8 million pounds. Together, these two states produced 93 percent of the total U.S. American lobster harvest.
The U.S. fishery for American lobster is one of the most intense and valuable commercial fisheries in North America, with revenues in the hundreds of millions. The 2010 commercial harvest was valued at nearly $396.8 million.
Recreational fishermen catch lobsters in coastal waters with pots and by hand while SCUBA diving. If they do not intend to sell the lobsters, divers may possess up to six lobsters per person per day but must abide by commercial size restrictions.
Lobster meat is mild and sweet. The meat is white with red tinges and is firm and somewhat fibrous. The tail meat is firmer than the meat from the claws.
Lobsters and other crustaceans spoil rapidly once they die, which is why many buyers insist on purchasing them alive. Live lobsters range in color from brownish rust to bright blue to greenish brown but turn bright red when cooked. Live lobsters should be active, and their tails should curl, not dangle, beneath them. Many lobsters sold commercially are killed and frozen before cooking. Freezing slows deterioration. (Seafood Business, 2011)
Live lobsters are landed and available to consumers year-round. In New England, where most lobsters are landed, the peak harvest season extends from May to November.
Lobster is low in saturated fat and is a very good source of protein and selenium. The FDA advises consumers to not eat the tomalley, the light-green substance found in the lobster. The tomalley is the liver and pancreas, which can accumulate contaminants from the lobster’s environment.
|Serving Weight||100 g (raw)|
|Fat, total||0.9 g|
|Saturated fatty acids, total||0.18 g|
|Sugars, total||0 g|
|Fiber, total dietary||0 g|
American Lobster Table of Nutrition