Lobster stocks in Atlantic Canada have been flourishing in recent years, ironically not just because of conservation measures, but also because of two ecological disasters — the collapse of groundfish stocks and climate change. But can the lobster fishery survive with current rates and rules for harvesting as waters continue to warm and ecosystems change? In this, Part 1 of a two-part series, we look at what is known about lobster stocks, some of the pressures on them, and some of the measures being taken to manage the fishery and protect them.

“Frank” on Clearwater boat and giant lobsters from LFA 41 in early 2000s (contributed)

In the early 2000s, while he was working on one of Clearwater Seafoods’ four offshore lobster boats in Lobster Fishing Area (LFA) 41, Frank – not his real name – was deeply impressed by the incredible lobster catches, and the incredible size of the lobsters.

Frank tells the Halifax Examiner that at the time there hadn’t been a lot of lobster fishing in LFA 41, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Clearwater obtained the last of its eight licences, which gave it a monopoly on offshore lobster. The boat Frank was on would fish with 27 strings of gear, and each of those had 125 traps for a total of 3,375 traps.

Frank recalls that they would leave port on Sundays or Mondays, “if the weather was fit, and sometimes even if the weather wasn’t fit, we left anyway. And then we would land again on Thursday or Friday.”

One of the four boats Clearwater once used in LFA 41 later replaced by the Randell Dominaux (contributed)

They would fish close to the 50-mile line, which divided the offshore from the inshore fishery. Frank remembers when on a single day in the fall of 2005, they landed 28,000 lobsters.

“We had 52,000 pounds that trip in a little better than two days,” he says. “That was the biggest trip that was ever landed down there, offshore lobster-wise.”

Frank says that today Clearwater can land more than that using just its one boat — the 40.6-metre Randell Dominaux — which stays out longer and fishes with more gear. He says that the Clearwater vessel now makes eight-day trips and fishes seven days a week, setting out more than 9,000 new traps, and hauling in a similar number laid the previous week.

Clearwater’s offshore lobster vessel, Randell Dominaux

“But back then, we had probably 47,000 [pounds] and the next week 45,000,” Frank says. “Then 35,000 and then 30,000. And it went like that right up until January. And that was just our boat landing that, there were three other boats fishing too.”

As for conservation measures, Frank says that they threw back all the berried lobsters (females carrying extruded eggs on their abdomens) and the V-notched females, the ones that had been marked at some point because they were egg-bearing so they would not be caught, and kept, in subsequent years.

Berried female lobster Photo: Erica Porter

But this was the crew’s choice, he says, not Clearwater’s or the boat captain’s. Frank says they would try to measure and throw back undersized lobsters, but some would get by them because on some trips things were “hectic.” He adds:

The berried, undersize, weak and dead got thrown over … and never reached the plant to go through the weigh monitor, so they never came off the quota. One trip we had around 1,800 pounds of dead and weaks; the pin boards let go in the tank and the lobsters smashed up against the sides and each other. Overboard at the wharf they went, without even being seen by the weigh monitor.

Frank still remembers how big the lobsters were back then.

“Every lobster was huge when they first started offshore lobstering,” Frank says. “In 2007 the average weight was 2.4 pounds, and it dropped a little each year I was there. We had a 21-pound lobster one trip.”

“The big ones are few and far between now, but [back] then both males and females were humongous,” he says.

When it comes to female lobsters and conservation of the species, size matters, as do many other factors that need to be considered in assessing current and future lobster stocks.

This brings us to some multi-billion-dollar questions about lobster stocks and the prospects for the offshore and inshore lobster fisheries.

What is being done to protect lobster stocks?

Three Mi’kmaw communities — Sipekne’katik, Pictou Landing, and Potoltek First Nations — have recently launched their own “moderate livelihood” fisheries, a Treaty right affirmed in the 1999 Marshall decision, and several more are now developing their own management plans for their moderate livelihood fisheries.

As the Examiner reported here, the Sipekne’katik livelihood management plan contains a range of conservation measures, including rules prohibiting the retention of berried and molting lobsters. The plan does not stipulate the number of traps per fishing permit or a fishing season, but says this will be determined by a Fisheries Committee, appointed by the Band Council. The plan lists the dates of the commercial seasons in each LFA “for information purposes only.” It does indicate there will be a “closed period” during which the retention of lobsters is prohibited but this is to be determined by the Band Council.

Pictou Landing First Nation’s “Netukulimk Livelihood Fisheries Plan” has clear rules for 2020/2021. These include limiting individuals to a maximum of 30 traps each, and among other things, the plan prohibits the retention of molting lobsters, berried females, any female lobster with a carapace longer than 110 mm, any lobster with a carapace shorter than 80 mm in LFA 26A and 82.5 mm in LFA 26B. The PLFN plan currently includes only two LFAs, 26A and B, and sets its Netukulimk Livelihood fishing seasons from October 1 until December 14, and from May 1, 2021 or the opening day of the commercial season, to July 1, 2021, or its closing date.

We’ll come back to the importance of “netukulimk,” the Mi’kmaw concept on the judicious use of natural bounty, in Part 2 of this series, and the Examiner has also published an interview with Mi’kmaw Elder and St Francis Xavier University Knowledge Keeper Kerry Prosper about its importance in moderate livelihood fisheries.

For commercial lobster fisheries, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) lists these conservation measures, one of which — protection of egg-bearing females — dates way back to the 1870s:

The inshore lobster fishery is managed by “input control,” which means that a limit is placed on fishing efforts. Conservation measures include:

  • a limited number of licences issued, with limits on the number of traps;
  • limited and staggered fishing seasons — lobster fishing is generally prohibited between July and the end of September to protect summer molts;
  • protection of egg-bearing females — females bearing eggs must be released back into the environment alive to ensure the reproductive cycle continues (harvesters may voluntarily cut a small v-shaped notch in the female’s tail prior to release to ensure it will be released in the future, even when not bearing eggs);
  • minimum lobster size limits — a measure to increase the likelihood that lobsters reach full adult maturity and reproduce;
  • maximum lobster size limits (or a closed window size as an alternative measure) which protects large lobsters that proportionally produce more eggs;
  • trap designs that allow undersized lobsters to escape and that include biodegradable escape panels to ensure traps lost at sea will not continue catching lobsters and other species; and
  • ongoing monitoring and enforcement of fishing regulations and licence conditions.

As reported here, many of these conservation measures were initiated by fishers and their associations, not by DFO.

In his November 9 letter to the federal government’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Dennis McGee, Interim President of the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association, wrote, “Conservation has real meaning for us. Most of us come from generations of fishing families. We have sons and daughters who hope to fish after us. We have a connection to the waters we fish. Many of us are fishing the same bottoms that our great-grandfathers did.”

Mcgee adds:

We apply our concerns about protecting stocks and limiting the amount of fishing effort to ourselves as an essential conservation measure. For decades we have not allowed the number of inshore lobster licences to increase, in order to protect the stocks. The rule has been “one out, one in” — someone had to give up their licence in order for a new fisher to gain one. We have also supported reducing numbers of traps for conservation purposes. Over the last 50 years, inshore lobster fishermen in LFA 26A-1 [in the Northumberland Strait] have reduced their trap numbers from over 500 per person down to 280 traps as one important measure to help rebuild lobster stocks.

Similarly, when the offshore lobster fishery started, it was inshore fishers who pressured DFO to bring in at least some conservation measures there.

DFO has this to say about conservation for the offshore lobster fishery:

The offshore lobster fishery in area 41 has many of the same conservation measures in place [as for the inshore commercial fishery] as well as an annual limit on the number of lobsters that may be caught, referred to as total allowable catch. The current total allowable catch for this fishery is 720 tonnes and has remained unchanged since 1989.

In 1979, DFO closed Browns Bank (LFA 40), which borders on LFAs 41 and 34, to protect lobster brood stock believed to occur there.

Map showing Clearwater offshore lobster harvest intensity 2010-2014. Courtesy: Peter Ziobrowski

Conservation measures all over the map

If harvesting seasons and lobster sizes are strictly conservation measures, this raises questions about why DFO imposes strict seasons on Canada’s inshore commercial lobster fishery, but doesn’t on the offshore lobster fishery, which until September of this year — when Membertou First Nation purchased two of its eight licences — was a monopoly held by Clearwater, something the Examiner reported on here and here.[1]

The Examiner asked DFO why there are no seasons in the offshore lobster fishery, but has not yet received a reply.

Nor are there seasons across the marine border in Maine.

According to Richard Wahle, research professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine and the director of the Lobster Institute, the reason that Maine does not have lobster-fishing seasons is mostly because Canada does, where it is primarily in the winter.

In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Wahle explained that many Maine fishers have smaller boats that can only handle summer fishing. This means much of their catch is soft-shell lobsters, which don’t ship well and have a lower value than hard-shell lobsters caught in winter or early spring.

According to Wahle, there are market factors at play:

Canadian processors value the U.S. production during the summer so they can keep going … the fact that there is a complementarity between the U.S. and Canadian fishery tends to perpetuate the summer fishery in Maine, or at least contribute to perpetuating it. Most Maine fishermen will acknowledge that they’re fishing volume instead of value, whereas the Canadian fishermen are fishing value.

Richard Wahle (contributed)

Wahle says that conservation of stocks depends on a range of things, and modelling of population dynamics to manage stocks incorporates harvesting practices, compliance with the V-notching program, and also the impact of adjusting minimum and maximum allowable size, if there is one.

He also says that Maine has long recognized the value of protecting large, egg-bearing females and thus has upper size limits.

“You’ll get different opinions on this,” he says, “But the argument — and this has largely been led by the industry — is that by protecting egg-bearing females and having this V-notch program, you’re allowing a lot of females into that larger size.”

V-notching the tail flipper of a berried female is a conservation measure used to identify it as a known breeder and protect it from being harvested in future.

This is important, Wahle says, because big females produce a lot more eggs than smaller females that are just entering legal size. “It is something on the order of the difference between 10,000 and 100,000 eggs that the two different sizes produce. And that relationship has been quantified and statistically evaluated.”

The largest lobsters are those found on the outer shelf waters and the banks, where the water is cooler, and because of their size they are more immune to predators. Wahle says this means the offshore is particularly important for the future of lobster stocks:

And just by virtue of their [the lobsters’] greater size and especially where the fishing pressure may be lower in these offshore areas, the bigger animals accumulate out there over years and decades. And so it, in effect, becomes a refuge for the largest brood stock.

The Examiner asked DFO if Canada has an upper allowable size limit for lobsters anywhere on the inshore or offshore, given the importance of large females for egg production, but has not yet received a reply. Nor did DFO grant the Examiner an interview with one of their biologists, which we requested.

Healthy lobster stocks and ecological disasters

In a recent interview, Clearwater vice president sustainability and public affairs Christine Penney told the Halifax Examiner that lobster stocks are at “hundred-year highs” and “generally in very, very good condition relative to where they’ve been historically.”

A DFO spokesperson told the Examiner that lobster stocks around Atlantic Canada are “in the healthy zone,” and there has been “an increase in lobster productivity over the past 20 years,” although “in some areas there have been declines from the recent high levels of landings.”

Richard Wahle says the surge in recent years in lobster populations can be attributed to what are essentially two ecological disasters — one that has already happened, the collapse of the groundfish stocks, and one that is on-going, climate change.

The “comfort zone” for lobsters — at least in summer — is between about 12 and 20 degrees Celsius, explains Wahle. “If you get much warmer than about 20 degrees, their physiology starts to suffer, their immune systems start failing.”

Warming waters are pushing lobster populations north from southern New England, where Wahle says lobster stocks are now at “pretty much historic lows and there is not even an economically viable fishery in many places.”

He says the adverse effects of warming waters were already being felt in the late 1990s, which led to mass mortalities of lobsters in Long Island Sound between New York City and Rhode Island, which, in Wahle’s words, “knocked their fishery down by about 75%.”

“That was exacerbated by the onset of shell disease, which is also hastened by warming,” he says.

However, Wahle notes that this same warming, “has had positive effects on the historically cold parts of the lobsters’ range and those have historically been places like the Bay of Fundy, and the northern end of the species range in Newfoundland, and the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Atlantic Lobster Settlement Index map of study areas

For the past 30 years, Wahle has been leading an annual monitoring program called the American Lobster Settlement Index (ALSI), which quantifies the settlement of lobster larvae, something that happens at the pivotal stage in the life cycle of a lobster when larvae settle on the bottom and “repopulate rocky coastal nursery grounds in New England and Atlantic Canada.”

Scientists quantify recently settled young lobsters and older juvenile lobsters at the end of the larval settlement season, sometime between August and October, to produce an index. The index is “useful as a predictor of future trends” of lobster populations that come of age — and size — for harvesting in about seven years.

Atlantic Lobster Settlement Index scientists at work Photo: ALSI

ALSI is a collaborative program involving American governmental and non-governmental participants, including Ready Seafood (one of Maine’s biggest seafood dealers and processors that was purchased in 2018 by Premium Brands, the BC firm that along with a coalition of First Nations recently purchased Clearwater), and Canadian colleagues, including from DFO, the University of New Brunswick (UNB), UPEI, Université Sainte-Anne, the PEI Fishermen’s Association, and the Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen’s Association.

Wahle explains that the settlement index is a sort of “early warning system in that it takes about seven or eight years for lobsters to mature to [be large enough for] the fishery.”

“So when you see a downturn or several years of a downturn in larval settlements, we’ve demonstrated that you can expect to see a proportional downturn seven or eight years later,” he says.

The settlement data from last year bring good news from some areas, and not so good from others. The report states that:

In calendar year 2019, Canadian lobster landings continued to boast near all-time highs. And while US landings have slipped a bit from their own historic highs, much of those losses have been offset by continued high value.

And:

In 2019, the good news was a significant and welcome upturn in settlement in the Gulf of Maine from Penobscot Bay to New Brunswick’s Fundy shore, with lesser upticks from Casco Bay to New Hampshire. The stretch of New England coast from Cape Anne, MA, to Rhode Island remained at historic lows, however. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the north shore of PEI continued to report some of the highest young-of-year densities on record, even though they fell back from the astronomical peak of 2018 with settlement on par with 2017. Still, Northumberland Strait continued its incremental upward trend of the past few years. Disappointingly, Nova Scotia did not continue its ALSI survey in 2019, excluding one of Canada’s most lucrative lobster fishing areas. [emphasis added]

Fishing down the food web

Wahle says that while lobster stocks have plummeted off southern New England, Maine has not yet had a serious decline. “We definitely seem to be on the other side of our major peak,” he tells the Examiner. “But I think we’re still only about 20% off what we were in 2016, when we were at our absolute peak.”

He stresses the importance of the annual index and other research that aims to monitor long-term trends in lobster stocks that take into account the effect of climate change and warming water “on the biology of the lobster and in particular, the size at onset of maturity and how that ultimately affects the egg and the larval production of lobsters” — a subject we’ll return to — “as well as the impact of predators.”

Wahle says that while some of the lobster boom can be attributed to warming temperatures, the depletion of “key predators” also had an impact. Those primarily include groundfish, “especially the large ones.” He explains:

Those groundfish, including cod, haddock and a number of a number of flatfish — halibut, monkfish — it’s a long list of over a dozen species that in aggregate were fished down, especially the larger, most “nasty predators,” so to speak, were removed from the system. That essentially altered the function of these predators as key players in the ecosystem. It’s referred to as “fishing down the food web,” where humans target the big fish first, deplete them, and then they keep going down the food web and harvest others things. The big target, of course, going back over 400 years, was with the Atlantic cod and with European exploitation starting even before colonization.

In other words, today’s healthy lobster stocks are in part an inadvertent result of the collapse of cod stocks, one of the “biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century.”[2]

Timing of lobster “life events” changing

Rémy Rochette is professor of biological sciences at UNB, and formerly the lead investigator of the Lobster Node, a five-year collaboration that began in 2010 under the auspices of the Canadian Fisheries Research Network (CFRN), which was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The Lobster Node included 20 lobster fishing associations from five provinces, as well as researchers from six Canadian universities and government researchers from DFO. It was formed to address knowledge gaps regarding lobster productivity, stock structure, and connectivity.

In an interview with the Examiner, Rochette explains that the group is currently working on a research proposal to the Atlantic Fisheries Fund and Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) in hopes of establishing Lobster Node II, a permanent research platform that would engage in long-term monitoring, where data are readily accessible, especially given the rapid pace of climate and ecosystem changes.

In Part 3 of the series, “Lobster Fishing at a Crossroads,” the Examiner reported on the lobster conservation concerns raised by the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) in 1995 and again in 2007, which pointed to a need for reductions in exploitation rates and fishing effort, and warned that the fishery was harvesting primarily immature animals and did not allow for adequate egg production. It argued that, “the risk of recruitment failure is unacceptably high.” The Examiner asked Rochette if he shares any of these concerns.

“This is a difficult question, but in general yes, I do share these concerns,” he says. He explains that the sustainability of the fishery depends on there being “a good level of egg production, which in turn depends on the number of females that ‘are allowed’ to reproduce each year and their size.”

Rochette confirms what Wahle says, namely that the number of eggs laid by female lobsters increases exponentially with larger body size.

“Some regions have been more proactive than others at giving females a better chance of reproducing before being harvested through increases to the minimal legal size (MLS),” he explains. He points to a recent DFO study, which argues that the protection of egg-bearing females may explain why stocks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence are so healthy, and have been for the past 20+ years.

St. Mary’s Bay in LFA 34, from Canadian Hydrographic Chart

For many, the protection of lobster from capture at certain times of year through the use of specified fishing seasons does have some conservation value. But it’s become a subject of heated debate in light of the 1999 Marshall decision, which affirmed the Treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Peskotomuhkati to hunt, fish, and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood.”

A Supreme Court clarification known as Marshall 2 was issued two months after the initial decision, in response to an appeal of the decision by a coalition of non-Indigenous fishing interests. Part of the Marshall 2 decision states that the clarification determined that in its original decision:

The Court was thus most explicit in confirming the regulatory authority of the federal and provincial governments within their respective legislative fields to regulate the exercise of the treaty right subject to the constitutional requirement that restraints on the exercise of the treaty right have to be justified on the basis of conservation or other compelling and substantial public objectives …

According to Melanie Wiber and Chris Milley. writing about the implementation of Aboriginal fishing rights in Atlantic Canada, Marshall 2 clearly stated:

… that the Federal Minister of Fisheries has overall management authority and that the right to a livelihood fishery had limitations (namely conservation and good governance). The clarification did not state how this authority should be exercised.”[3]

On September 17, 2020, Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its self-regulated moderate livelihood fishery in LFA 34 — an area that was closed for the season and that wouldn’t open until near the end of November.

Commercial players, at least the inshore ones, have been adamant that conservation-based regulations, including seasons, be adhered to by everyone for the sake of conserving the lobster stocks. They argue that each First Nations’ trap set in the late summer is equivalent to 10 times as many because of what they’re capable of catching at that time of year.

When adult lobsters are molting — shedding and replacing their shells as they grow — they are very hungry. Hungry lobsters are more easily lured to the bait inside the traps. Other fishers, who did not want to be identified, describe St. Mary’s Bay as a “lobster nursery, where lobsters come to molt and spawn during the warmer months.”

The Examiner asked Rochette if there is a time of year when he thinks there shouldn’t be any lobster fishing for conservation reasons.

“Avoiding the capture of recently molted and hatching lobsters played an important role in the establishment of the lobster fishing seasons in Canada,” Rochette says, adding:

There is value in not fishing when lobsters are molting and when females are hatching their eggs. This is because a lobster that has recently molted is more likely to die if caught and returned to the water or moved into the supply chain, and ovigerous females — those carrying embryos in an advanced stage of development — lose some of these embryos/eggs when caught and returned to the water.

Rochette says that both molting and hatching occur mostly over summer months in Canada, but their exact timing varies from region to region and from year to year. He says that as a result of climate change, the timing of these processes is also shifting.

A 2019 study led by fisher Darren Porter of berried female lobsters in the Minas Basin and Minas Passage in the inner Bay of Fundy found that females in those waters released larvae in June and early July, the annual molt occurred in late July, and egg extrusion started in October.

Rémy Rochette (contributed)

Rochette acknowledges there have been large-scale changes in the timing of important biological events in the life of a lobster, such as the timing of molting, but points out that there’s not enough research to empirically state anything definitive for any specific geographic region.

However, based on the number of comments he’s heard by fishers and DFO lobster biologists at various meetings of the Lobster Node over the years, coupled with the known effect that temperature has on lobster biology, Rochette does say that he has “little doubt” there’s been a shift in the timing of molt.

One fisheries researcher who declined to speak on the record noted that there have always been issues with soft-shelled lobster in the fishery, and LFA 34 is no exception.

“Historically that district was known for its hard-shell lobster, but that has changed,” he says. “Despite the late November opening of the commercial season, the proportion of soft-shell lobster in the LFA 34 landings has increased significantly…and climate change is a possible cause.”

But Rochette says that apart from “pockets of data” on the seasonality of lobster molts, there is no routine or consistent long-term, longitudinal monitoring being done in any region. He says one “challenge” to doing this is that it “requires sampling outside the fishing season, which is a lot more difficult to do, logistically and financially, because we can’t take advantage of the sampling platform provided by lobster fishermen boats.” He says it’s the kind of work the Lobster Node II, if it comes to pass, would be engaged in.

More research would be needed in order to come up with a response to such changes, such as adjusting fishing seasons. “These data would incidentally also be useful in the context of the current conflict involving the Sipekne’katik First Nation in St. Mary’s Bay (and others that are likely to come),” he says.

As reported above and also here, lobster stocks have collapsed in southern New England, a result of warming oceans, and the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99.9% of the global ocean between 2004 and 2013. As well, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank stock has shown consistent declines. The Examiner asked Rochette what he thinks this all mean for lobster stocks in the Maritime region?

His response?

“That’s the million-dollar question.”

End Part 1. Lobster: the last, best fishery

[1] The purchase of Clearwater by Premium Brands and a coalition of First Nations, led by Membertou, which the Halifax Examiner reported on here, puts all Clearwater licences into the hands of the First Nations coalition.

[2] CBC has assembled a comprehensive and important archive of its reports over the years on the rise and fall of the cod fishery, which is available at: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/fished-out-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-cod-fishery.

[3] Chris Milley and Melanie Wiber: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07329113.2007.10756611


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Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

Linda Pannozzo

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email: linda@halifaxexaminer.ca; Website: lindapannozzo.ca

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  1. This Premium Brands holding company would seem to be very close to monopolizing corporate fishing on this coast (USA and Canada), shouldn’t that be a concern for the federal government? The again, anti-competitive behaviour is almost never punished.