With a new season just started, we once again see speculation on whether the lobster stock is healthy and stable, or in decline and facing the grim possibility of ‘potential over-fishing’. Let us agree from the start that calculating the population of any marine species is a complex game. Despite years of studies, scientists have come up with little concrete evidence on either the size of the lobster stock or its lifeline disbursement throughout the Caribbean. So far, stock speculation based on science, has been about as reliable as next years hurricane forecasts.
The average annual catch of Florida lobster has dropped 50% over the last 15 years, to 4 million pounds per year. Florida Wildlife Commission managers and scientists are puzzled by the development. Stock assessments show the population to be extremely healthy. Recreational catches have remained stable, and average catch per lobster trap has remained the same as it was 15 years ago. Purely by coincidence, and definitely unrelated to the drop in annual catch according to fishery managers, the number of allowable lobster traps has also been reduced by 50% in the past 15 years.
Embarrassed by the unexpected coincidence, managers and scientists have been on a desperate search to explain the drop in annual catch. Among the possibilities being studied: Over-fishing in Nicaragua. Changes in currents that bring larvae to Florida. El Nino variations. Fertilizer runoff from the Everglades. Lobster virus. Unreported habitat diving. Harvesting of under-sized lobster. Scraping of eggs in Caribbean countries. Demand for ‘baby’ lobster in many Asian nations. Single Caribbean population theory, and of course Global warming.
Not being studied: 50% reduction in lobster traps.
The working mind of the bureaucracy is an amazing thing to behold. Had I not spent 21/2 years on the Lobster Advisory Board for the Fish and Wildlife Commission, where I was able to freely question fishery managers and state scientists, I would not truly appreciate the agenda driven nature of our fishery science. Even a government skeptic like myself, was stunned to find
that trap reduction was not one of the factors being considered in the precipitous drop in annual landings. Like the global warming crowd who simply ruled out the possibility they could be wrong, fishery managers dismissed out of hand the possibility a 50% trap reduction could cause a 50% catch reduction.
For certain, none of us can be 100% certain that trap reduction is the entire reason for the annual catch reduction, but shouldn’t such a direct correlation at least be considered by fishery managers? Catch per trap, or Catch Per Unit Effort as the scientists call it, was supposed to double if trap numbers were cut in half. It is one of the simplest statistics to determine the success of a program that we see in any fishery. It’s the 700 lb gorilla in the room, and yet fishery managers are determined to ignore it.
The contortions that managers and scientists go through to explain away the obvious, would be funny if they weren’t so serious. They simply must find a reason for catch reduction besides trap reduction. In a recent article in the Miami Herald, Tom Mathews, a research scientist for the State of Florida, referring to the annual drop in production, was quoted as saying, “We don’t have a smoking gun, but the stronger thought is the lobster were affected by the virus PaV1.”
For those of you who are wondering about PaV1, also known as the ‘lobster virus’, think swine flu. The so called virus mysteriously appeared a few years ago as a result of one of the myriad of grant driven marine studies. Bureaucrats instantly smelled a fresh crisis, and with a steady stream of government press releases, the new discovery was quickly sensationalized in the media.
Despite the ‘potential’ for disaster, fishery managers and scientists assured us that with increased funding they could launch immediate studies to insure the protection of an unsuspecting public. From the bureaucratic perspective, the research that discovered the lobster virus was like hitting the lottery. The ideal grant driven study never produces answers. The perfect study must produce unanswered questions, which necessitate even more studies. What caused the virus? Is the lobster population threatened? Can the virus be harmful to humans? Is the virus isolated or wide spread?
Meanwhile, as the studies have presumably droned on, years have passed without any noticeable effect on the lobster population, or any human experiencing so much as a sick stomach from the ‘potentially’ threatening virus. Once all of the drama was squeezed out of the crisis, the lobster virus crisis was quietly stored away – but not forgotten – in the file cabinet between mercury poisoning, and coral bleaching.
Today the lobster virus is little more than a fall back reason for scientists. When they don’t have an answer, the virus is a perfect suspect since no one but a scientist could possibly identify a disease that has no symptoms. But for those of us who live in the real world, the stunning find of a lobster virus, has appeared little more dramatic than discovering that humans can have a head cold virus.
Meanwhile our fishing bureaucracy plows inexorably forward with their political agenda. The legitimate lobster industry questions that should be addressed are simply ignored: Has the trap reduction caused the catch reduction? What is the real impact on our fishing communities? What about the elimination of our small boat fishermen? Is our economy being affected by not maximizing our sustainable yield? Why should there ever be a quota in an industry that is as effort restricted as lobster?
Unfortunately, we know these questions will be readily dismissed. Our fishing bureaucracy ultimately answers to no one, least of all fishermen. Some amount of pressure can come from environmentalists, the public, and high ranking politicians, but input from our fishing industry is smoothly disregarded as self serving rhetoric from the vested interest.
What remains of our lobster industry is still healthy, but precariously perched. There are half the boats, half the fishermen, half the fish houses, half the industry income, and double the bureaucracy. Yet fortunately, the stocks are stable, the remaining fishermen are still catching the same amount per trap, and a few fish houses are still surviving. However, it won’t take much to push our fragile industry over the edge, and if fishery managers care at all, they had better reconsider the restrictions they are currently planning to implement.