COAST CITIES — Proposed rules like a trap limit could have a significant impact on commercial and recreational lobstermen for years to come.
A volunteer committee made up of marine scientists, environmentalists and lobstermen from across the industry settled on recommendations last week for the California Lobster Fishery Management Plan. They’ve met in public 10 times over the past year with the goal of keeping the fishery healthy and the business fair for all involved.
“Lobster is one of the very few remaining sustainable fisheries in California that you can make a living off of,” said commercial lobsterman Shad Catarius, who served on the commission. “We want to maintain our lifestyle.”
Most notably, the committee unanimously agreed that a commercial lobster boat shouldn’t use more than 300 lobster traps at any time.
Currently, there isn’t a ceiling on traps for lobstermen. But the committee agreed on the need, in part, given expanded marine protected areas that took effect two years ago.
Catarius explained that lobstermen weren’t in favor of the reserves to begin with. They’ve limited where lobstermen can put their traps in the water, causing congestion and diminished returns.
However, because it’s likely the marine areas aren’t going anywhere, the committee recognized that there’s “too much gear in the water.”
“The committee said a 300 limit could help alleviate crowding,” said Catarius, who fishes with 550 traps.
“I’m not thrilled about the limit, but it was a compromise among the stakeholders,” he added.
A consolation might come from the law of economics. The trap limit could increase how much lobstermen receive for their catch since there’s less supply coming out of the water, Catarius noted.
Lobster currently fetches about $18 a pound.
Presently, it’s required that lobstermen pull up their traps every 96 hours. However, Catarius said that’s difficult to enforce — another reason cited in establishing the 300-trap limit.
Oceanside Lobsterman Wayne Campbell said large boats like his that haul in a high number of lobster were left out of the committee’s decision-making process.
“It feels like a punishment for those who took the time to build their business,” Campbell said of the trap limit recommendation.
Campbell and his crew use about 750 traps. Under the proposed rules, lobstermen can buy a second permit, allowing them a maximum of 600 traps. But the price of a permit is an issue.
Lobster permits once ran for $50,000, but the cost can be as high as $100,000 these days.
“I certainly don’t have $100,000 laying around for a second permit,” Campbell said.
He added: “The limit doesn’t have to do with the biology of the fishery, but the money the permits bring in.”
To preserve the lobster fishery, he said rules should instead focus on solutions like making it more difficult to transfer lobster permits.
About 195 lobstermen have a commercial permit throughout the state. In an effort to keep lobster catches in check, 48 of those permits aren’t transferable and will eventually expire.
Kristine Barsky, senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, oversaw the lobster committee’s meetings.
She said 1998’s Marine Life Management Act calls for stakeholders to develop management plans for various fisheries so they remain sustainable. A plan to prevent the over-fishing of white seabass, for instance, was previously completed.
For the lobster committee’s recommendations to become law, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and ultimately the California Fish and Game Commission must approve them. The proposals that received unanimous consent from the committee have a better chance of entering the books, Barsky noted.
The aim is to have a Lobster Fishery Management Plan in place by 2015.
Lobster is the most valuable species for the local fishing industry, representing $4.7 million in dockside value in 2012-13, according to landing data from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
During last year’s season, county lobstermen caught 294,200 pounds. That’s up from 263,650 pounds during the 2011-12 season and 235,100 pounds in 2010-11.
The county makes up a significant chunk of the state’s lobster catch, which came in at 867,450 pounds in 2012-13.
New regulations could also impact the recreational side. With two members of the 12-member advisory committee opposed, it decided to recommend a ban on anglers employing conical hoop nets to capture lobster.
Barsky said that in the past, most recreational fishermen primarily dove for lobster, but now more are relying on the conical hoop nets.
“The dynamic has completely changed,” she said.
Traditional hoop nets lie flat on the bottom of the ocean. But the conical nets have formidable walls, making it more difficult for lobster to escape if they crawl across them in search of food, Barsky noted.
She said some believe the conical nets yield a disproportionate number of lobster, hurting the commercial lobstermen who rely on the fishery.
Wardens wrote tickets for the conical nets when they first became popular five years ago, arguing they were similar to traps. But those fines were later dismissed in court.
Jim Salazar, who represented recreational fishermen from throughout California on the commission, voted against the conical net ban.
“I don’t see evidence justifying a conical net ban,” he said.
He’s taken video he said proves lobster can in fact get out of the conical nets.
Further, the Department of Fish and Wildlife recently moved to a new report card system to get more anglers to note what kind of equipment they use and how much they catch.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife should wait for more report card data to determine if the conical nets are actually creating issues, Salazar said. Otherwise, it’s premature to consider a ban.
With two on the committee against, a limit of 70 lobsters per season for recreational fishermen was also proposed to cut down on illegal commercialization. Right now, there is no limit. And Salazar said his constituents are against that change as well.
“The recreational fishing industry would suffer,” he said.