Look at the lobster. Mottled. Spiny. Ugly. Like the clam and the shrimp, the conch and the scallop, it's an alien little creature that must be hauled to the surface at great effort and boiled alive in order to be consumed.
Its problem, of course, is that it is delicious. And like the bluefin and the Atlantic cod before it, that quality may all but doom it to near-extinction.
In yet another case of human appetite and environmental upheaval merging to threaten a marine species, lobster populations in southern New England are in such decline that a regional fisheries board recently considered giving them almost whale-level protection.
On the table at a July 22 meeting of the American Lobster Management Board was a five-year moratorium on lobster fishing for an area that stretches from southern Massachusetts to North Carolina, according to the AP.
Called the “Southern New England” region of lobster habitats, it has seen the estimated population fall from more than 35 million individuals just a dozen years ago to about 15 million today.
“The Southern New England stock (SNE) is critically depleted and well below the minimum threshold abundance,” reads the opening of a report prepared by the American Lobster Technical Committee in April for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The report states that the lobster isn’t actually being overfished, really, but that fishing, combined with environmental conditions and a slew of potential contributing factors (a shell-disfiguring disease, an old oil spill) are combining to decimate the lobsters to the point that they can not recover.
In the face of such decline, the technical committee had a simple, economically brutal solution: stop all lobster fishing from Cape Cod to Kitty Hawk until 2015.
It was a suggestion that drew thunderous outcry from a predictable group: lobstermen.
Calling the ban everything from “catastrophic” to “almost biblical” to “the bullet in a gun that was pointed to our head,” by moratorium opponents and lobster fishermen, the idea was shouted down at the July 22 meeting—but not completely taken off the table, the AP reports.
Other solutions discussed included catch quotas reduced by 50 to 75 percent, which were also deemed as lethal industry-killers by lobstermen, according to various media accounts of the board meeting.
But if enforced, would it mean the end of the lobster bisque special at your local seafood hot spot? No, lobster-lover, it wouldn’t. The Southern New England region supplies just 5 to 7 percent of the total Northeast lobster catch, according to the AP. The Gulf of Maine is home to about 116 million lobsters—about 100 million more than the SNE stock.
So the lobster would survive, and continue to stain the shirts of Red Lobster enthusiasts for years to come, but the issue raised is the familiar one: economy versus sustainability, desire to consume versus willpower to go cold turkey.
In August, the board will meet again to reconsider ways to deal with the plummeting SNE lobster population. Despite the economic pain, the clear issue remains: unless the population is saved, even by drastic quota cuts, won't the lobstermen be out of a livelihood anyway?