Like all lobstermen, Waterford resident Mike Theiler’s day begins long before dawn. By 3:30 a.m., he’s at the Ferry Street Marina in New London and ready to shove off in the Jeannette T., the 40-foot custom-built lobster boat that he named after his mother. His daily goal is to make it to The Race — the deep, fast-flowing water between Fishers Island and Gull Island — by slack tide to start setting and pulling the 1,400 pots he has in the water.
And yet today, the hardest part of the job is the problem — a decreased lobster population — and the government’s solution to the problem: stringent regulations.
The drop in the lobster population is attributed to a variety of factors, including heavy fishing in some areas and rising sea temperatures in others, which have forced the lobsters to migrate farther offshore into cooler waters. Returning berried (egg-bearing) and undersized females in areas swimming with other predators (everything likes to eat lobsters) is another contributing factor.
In response, regulators have dug their claws deeper into the industry. Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the fishing industry from Maine to North Carolina, changed the rules to enlarge both the legal size for lobsters and the size of the vent that allows them to escape the pots.
To be legal in Connecticut, a lobster must now measure 3-3/8 at the carapace (the section of a lobster from the eye socket to the middle of the back), and the vent in the lobster pot has to be 6 inches long by 2 inches wide. That’s such a big gap, Theiler says, that sometimes even legal lobsters escape. Combined, the two rules have seriously diminished the size of Theiler’s haul.
“Out of every 40 [lobsters trapped], we might keep one or two,” he says. “This year was not a good year for lobsters.”
Collectively, lobster fishermen in Long Island Sound land about 7 million pounds of lobster a year. While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to Maine, which lands 25 million pounds annually. The legal size for lobsters caught in that state is smaller, at 3¼ inches. “We’ve got one of the largest gauge sizes and Maine has the smallest,” says Theiler.
As co-chair of Connecticut’s Seafood Council, Theiler is big on promoting locally harvested seafood. Even so, he says, a glut of Maine lobsters continues to flood the market and that keeps prices down. Maine doesn’t just dominate the marketplace, however. The size of its industry also makes it a major political force on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Theiler says.
In recent years, the Southern New England states have had to fight hard to prevent the commission from imposing a five-year moratorium on lobster fishing in the region. “Guess who’s driving that bus? The state of Maine,” says Theiler. “So far we’ve been able to outvote them. [U.S. Rep.] Joe Courtney has done a great job supporting us.”
Rising Costs and Limited Options
Rising fuel and bait prices have drastically increased the cost of doing business in Connecticut too, Theiler says. The cruising speed for his 550-horsepower boat is about 17 knots, which means he’s burning 15 to 16 gallons of gas an hour. With Connecticut gas prices at more than $4 per gallon, that adds up to about $60 an hour.
Bait prices have soared, too. Theiler, who primarily uses skate, says bait is costing him about $100 per tide these days. Add to that the wages he pays the two people who work with him on the boat and it’s costing him $400 before he’s even pulled a pot.
Theiler is better off than most local lobstermen, however, because he still has licenses that allow him to supplement his income by fishing for something besides lobster. Many others aren’t so lucky. Changes to fishing license regulations that took effect in 1996 forced people to specialize.
“Prior to 1996, we weren’t just lobstermen, we were commercial fishermen,” says Theiler. When the regulators decided to compartmentalize the industry, those who had historically fished for lobster applied for lobster licenses, Theiler says. “We became boxed in.”
That was fine when lobster was abundant. Time was, you could drop a peach basket in the Thames River and pull up a lobster for lunch, Theiler says. That changed in 1999, when a massive lobster die-off hit the local lobster industry. The die-off was caused by chemicals sprayed to kill West Nile encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes in New York. It turns out that lobsters don’t just have the same anatomy as insects; anything that kills land insects will kill lobster too.
A day after the spraying, 11 million lobsters in Long Island Sound died. When an investigation found that the insecticide contained a higher concentration of chemicals than recommended and even some chemicals that were not legal, Long Island lobstermen filed suit. A settlement from that civil lawsuit helped keep the local lobster industry afloat, but it couldn’t speed the lobster population’s recovery.
As other species, such as cod, begin to make a return to local waters, Theiler would like to see the licensing regulations relaxed to allow people to catch whatever is most abundant. Such a change would help manage the different populations, Theiler argues, and help the fishermen too.
“Right now, I’d rather be a scalloper,” Theiler says.
Theiler will have a chance to make a case for regulatory change on Aug. 1, when he attends the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Lobsters
1. Lobsters migrate. Lobstermen can tell which ones have been on the move because their claws whiten the more they scrape along the bottom of the sea bed. Lobsters that have stayed in the same spot for a while have dark claws.
2. Lobsters can survive out of water for 24 hours. As long as they’re cool, lobsters can survive on land for about a day but on lobster boats, they’re kept fresh in large tanks that are filled with continuously circulating sea water.
3. Even lobsters like to eat lobster. Although there once was a lobster hatchery in Noank, it isn’t cost-effective to farm-raise lobsters because they are slow to grow (it takes a lobster about seven years to reach the legal size in Connecticut) and they are cannibalistic.
4. A female lobster carries about 30,000 eggs but only a handful of them survive. In case you’re curious, lobsters grow by shedding their shells, and they mate when the female is soft and the male’s shell is hard.
5. The largest lobster Theiler ever caught was 8¼ pounds, pulled right out of the Thames River. The most unusual was a blue lobster he caught last year. It now shares a tank with a yellow lobster and calico lobster at the Norwalk Maritime Center.