Lobster traps are not uncommon sights. They wash ashore during everyone’s summer vacation and later resurface as coffee tables, hassocks or emergency wedding presents. The trap’s bait (usually flounder or fish byproducts) is stuck to a spindle in the trap’s “kitchen end.”The lobster enters the trap and takes the bait. After dining, the lobster moves off to relax in the “power”end of the trap. A net is rigged in this end in the general configuration of a shark’s jaws. This net conforms to the lobster’s body and entangles him there.
Every one of Sampuco’s traps came up with something different. Among the extraneous seafood were starfish, enough crabs to feed Baltimore until they clean it, and a gaping conger eel angered either at being hauled up or at being the wrong species to chomp on Nick Nolte in modern films.
The two sons examined each lobster that had ridden the traps up. By state law, any females bearing eggs must be thrown back. The state also requires that no lobster be taken that measures less than three-and-three-sixteenths inches from the eyes to the base of the tail. While after 10 years Andrew has developed a jeweler’s eye for the substandard catch, some were still dubious enough to be measured with the small brass calipers hanging by a string from one of the catch-baskets.
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Both of these rules regarding which lobsters go over the side were devised as methods to conserve what many see as a dwindling resource. “The last three years,”Sampuco says, “have been good ones.”Nevertheless, the average yearly catch-per-trap-unit-employed has slid. “In the late 1800s,”says Hughes of Marine Fisheries, “you caught 60 million pounds on somewhere around 200,000 traps. Today, you’ll catch 20 million pounds in 1.5 million traps.”
The rules regarding conservation of the resource are based on reproductive cycles. “Of all the lobsters currently passing minimum size,”says Hughes, “only about 10 percent have reproduced once. If you were to increase the minimum size to three-and-a-half inches, at least 90 percent would have reproduced once.”
Through a combined state and federal effort, the lobster fishery may soon find itself with uniform regulations nationwide for the first time in its history.
“The states have varying laws,”said one person close to the effort. “We’ve been trying to develop a uniform code for the lobster-fishing states for about five years now. We’ve made some progress, but the real difference is the minimum size allowed.”
Rhode Island, for example, has only recently changed its minimum size for marketable lobsters to three-and-three-sixteenths from three-and-one-eighth inches. When the old limit was still in effect, according to some lobster fishermen, Massachusetts fishermen were meeting larger Rhode Island offshore boats and selling undersized lobsters to them. “There’s a problem in uniform rules,”says Hughes, “because all the state legislatures do not meet at the same time, and no one wants to adopt a code unless the others do at the same time.”
Several other regulations with the same purpose would be welcomed not only by Hughes, but by lobstermen themselves. “Hey, we’re not stupid,”said one fisherman. “We’re not going to go out there and rape the resource.”
“I’d like to see it enforceable that at least some of the traps be made biodegradable.”says Hughes. “That and the minimum-size increase would be great.”
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