Saving Lobster ‘Clawdia’

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photoHomarus_americanus_eggs

More than once, I’ve heard a lobster fisherman refer to himself as a ‘crustacean relocation technician.’ It is meant as a joking way to describe how fishermen catch large amounts of lobster in traps and then bring them ashore.

On occasion, but not often, you hear about efforts to move individual lobsters the other direction – from somewhere on land back to sea.

Usually it involves a larger lobster (well above Maine’s maximum size limit of roughly a couple of pounds) that has been in a live tank at a restaurant or perhaps at an aquarium. Not all of them end up back in the ocean – some go from restaurants to aquariums and others expire before they make it. More often than not, the effort is inspired by an urge to spare the lobster from the dinner plate in recognition of it having lived to a ripe old age or survived some sort of hardship.

But a repatriation effort originating in Vermont is the first I have heard of that is motivated purely out of deference to conservation rules. In this case, a female lobster dubbed “Clawdia” (note: that is not Clawdia in the photo above) was transported this week from a Hannaford Supermarket in St. Albans, Vermont to Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport because she had eggs on the bottom of her tail.

By law, lobsters that have eggs or “berries” under their tail have to be returned to the water so those eggs have a chance to hatch and to sustain the lobster population off the Northeast coast. When Hannaford employees in Vermont realized they had a berried female, they contacted Vermont state officials who then arranged a ride for Clawdia to the Gulf of Maine (here’s the story as reported by Vermont television station WCAX in Burlington, Vermont).

The return of the egg-bearing lobster to the ocean comes at a time when some fishermen and fishery officials worry that reproducing females like Clawdia may not be getting as much amnesty as they used to.

To protect reproducing females, lobstermen are supposed to cut a v-shaped notch on the end of egg-bearing females and then put them right back in the ocean – a practice that Maine fishermen spearheaded decades before it caught on elsewhere. The notch alerts other fishermen that might catch her later on that she should go back in the water so that she might live to spawn again.

According to this story by Patrick Whittle of Associated Press, Maine fishery officials have said the number of egg-bearing females with v-notches in their tails has decreased over the past six years. The thinking goes that if those lobsters are being returned to the water in fewer numbers, it could wind up having an affect on the size of the Gulf of Maine lobster population.

It’s one of many factors to consider when it comes to managing Maine’s most valuable commercial fishery, which last year had a record total gross earnings value of $364.5 million for the state’s 4,000 or so active licensed commercial lobstermen.

The annual volume of lobster caught by Maine fishermen has steadily and significantly increased over the past three decades, from around 20 million pounds each year in the mid-1980s to more than 125 million pounds in each of the past two years. Rising ocean temperatures (which affect when lobsters molt and the seasonal fluctuation of landings) shell disease, and young lobster survival rates are among variables that officials say could play a role in when annual statewide catch totals in Maine inevitably decline.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 15 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.