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American Lobster

Homarus americanus

American Lobster

Also Known As

  • Lobster

U.S. wild-caught American lobster is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Population

Above target population levels in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Significantly below target levels in Southern New England.

Fishing Rate

At recommended levels.

Habitat Impacts

Fishing gears used to harvest American lobster have minimal impacts on habitat.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

    Year-round. In New England, where most lobsters are landed, the peak harvest season extends from May to November.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught from Maine to North Carolina.

  • Taste

    Mild and sweet.

  • Texture

    The meat is firm and somewhat fibrous. The tail meat is firmer than the meat from the claws.

  • Color

    The meat is white with red tinges.

  • Health Benefits

    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 U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • 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, has one vote when deliberating management measures for American lobster. The management board looks to industry advisors to provide recommendations for managing the fishery to meet management objectives.
  • States have jurisdiction for implementing measures in state waters (within 3 miles of shore), while NOAA Fisheries implements complementary regulations for the American lobster fishery in offshore federal waters (3 to 200 miles from shore).
  • The American lobster’s range is divided into two stock areas and seven management areas. There are seven Lobster Conservation Management Teams, one for each management area. These teams, made up of industry representatives, recommend measures to address the specific needs in 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).
  • Managed in state waters (within 3 miles of shore) under the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster. Each management area has unique regulations that include:
    • Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobster than can be harvested.
    • Trap limits 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 (the maximum number of traps a vessel may fish in a specific area). 
    • 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.
    • 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 to fish for lobsters.
    • Restrictions on the amount of lobster that can be harvested with non-trap gear.
    • Monitoring and reporting requirements.
    • A series of annual trap reductions are underway in lobster management areas 2 and 3 to reduce both latent and active effort and scale the Southern New England lobster fishery to the size of the stock.
    • A trap transfer program was initiated in 2015 that allows Federal permit holders to mitigate the impacts of the annual trap reductions by purchasing partial trap allocation from other authorized permit holders.  Others may sell allocation to other Federal lobster permit holders to downsize their own fishing operations and allow other permit holders to gain access to the trap fishery in certain management areas.
  • Managed in federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore) under regulations implemented through the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, including:
    • Fishermen must have a permit to harvest lobster. A temporary moratorium on the issuance of federal lobster permits, which limits the amount of available permits to control the number of fishermen harvesting lobster, was extended indefinitely in 1999.
    • Limits on the minimum and maximum size of lobsters that can be harvested, which varies by management area.
    • Prohibition on possession of lobster meat and lobster parts (lobsters must be landed live and whole to ensure they are of legal size).
    • 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. Federal lobster permit holders are not required to report landings unless they have another Federal fishery permit, in addition to their Federal lobster permit, that  requires landings reports (e.g., Northeast multispecies permit).
    • Area-specific measures have been approved to reduce fishing exploitation on the Southern New England stock, including biological and effort control management measures.
    • Regulations require biodegradable escape panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing (when lost gear continues to capture lobster and other species). Escape panels must be large enough to reduce bycatch of undersized lobsters.​

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2017, commercial landings of American lobster totaled 136.7 million pounds and were valued at more than $566.5 million.
    • The two stocks of American lobster—Gulf of Maine and 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.
    • There’s a reason we associate Maine with lobsters—the state has led American lobster landings for over 3 decades. Massachusetts is the second leading producer. Together, these two states produce 94 percent of the total U.S. American lobster harvest, and 94 percent of the coast-wide landings come from the Gulf of Maine lobster stock.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • 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 that marks the trap’s location is attached to the trap line. 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. To reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to fisheries interactions, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan was implemented in 1997. Lobstermen must 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. In addition, lobster permit holders are required to haul their active traps at least once every 30 days.
    • Traps can incidentally catch finfish and invertebrates (such as crabs and conch). Regulations require traps to be configured with biodegradable escape panels or hinges on traps to prevent ghost fishing (lost gear that continues to capture lobster and other species and may pose a hazard to other marine species). Escape panels must be large enough to reduce bycatch of undersized lobsters.
  • Recreational fishery:
    • Recreational fishermen catch lobsters in coastal waters with pots and by hand while scuba diving. Recreational fishermen with a federal lobster permit may harvest lobster in federal waters, but the lobster cannot be sold.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the 2015 stock assessment conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), there is record high stock abundance and recruitment in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, and record low abundance and recruitment failure in Southern New England. The Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stock is not overfished. However, the ASMFC considers the Southern New England stock severely depleted due to environmental factors and fishing pressure. Neither stock is subject to overfishing.
  • Since 2012, Young of Year surveys in the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank stock have shown consistent declines, which could indicate future declines in recruitment and landings.

Location

  • 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 to depths of 2,300 feet from Maine through North Carolina.

Habitat

  • 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 to 190 miles.
  • 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 lobster die-offs 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.

Physical Description

  • American lobster is a crustacean with a large shrimp-like body and 10 legs, two of which are large, strong claws.
  • One claw is a big-toothed crusher claw for pulverizing shells, and the other is a finer-edged ripper claw, resembling a steak knife, for tearing soft flesh.
  • Male and female lobsters can be distinguished by the first pair of swimmerets (pleopods) on the upper portion of the underside of the tail. The male swimmerets are larger and more rigid. The female swimmerets are softer, smaller, and have rounded edges.
  • Live lobsters are not red like those you see in a restaurant or grocery store, after they have been cooked. 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.

Biology

  • 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.
  • They can weigh 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 a period of 5 to 8 years between the time they hatch and when they are able to reproduce and reach the minimum legal size to be harvested.
  • 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 the eggs for 9 to 11 months.
  • Egg-bearing females move inshore to hatch their eggs during late spring or early summer.
  • The pelagic (free-swimming) larvae molt four times before they resemble adults and settle to the bottom.
  • Lobsters 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, worms, sea urchins, sea stars, fish, and macroalgae.
  • In general, a variety of bottom-dwelling species feed on lobster, including fish, sharks, rays, skates, octopuses, and crabs. Young lobsters are especially vulnerable to predators. Large, hard-shelled lobsters may be immune to predators (except humans).

Research

  • 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 quantify the abundance of juvenile lobsters. By removing escape vents from the lobster traps and randomly placing those traps within certain depth categories and geographic areas, researchers can assess the abundance of juvenile lobsters and the potential for young lobsters to reach a size or life stage that can be caught by the fishing gear (recruitment) in the future. These surveys complement longstanding fishery-independent bottom trawl surveys conducted by NOAA Fisheries and the states. Because trawl gear cannot effectively sample rocky or shallow coastal bottom types, the ventless trap surveys attempt to fill this data gap by using fixed lobster gear without escape vents.

Last updated: 09/04/2019