PORTLAND — As other New England fisheries struggled in 1994, Maine lobster fishermen recorded their best year ever, landing 37.7 million pounds of lobster with a value of nearly $100 million, the government said Wednesday.
The lobster landings shattered the record of 31 million pounds worth $73.6 million set the previous year, and the figures could rise with the addition of late data, said Robert Morrill of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The record harvest for the state’s 4,000-strong lobster fleet came during a year that saw the collapse of stocks of key groundfish such as cod and haddock.
“It’s beyond anybody’s wildest dreams,” said Pat White, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Everyone had to have had one of their record years.”
The landings were a surprise of sorts because the lobster fishery is generally thought to have peaked. The lobster resource is listed by the federal government as overfished.
But Maine lobstermen reported a plentiful supply of mature and juvenile lobsters last year.
“How can we be overfished if this is what’s happening every year?” said Herman Backman, a 71-year-old fisherman from Beals and president of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association.
Backman attributed the success of Maine fishermen to state-mandated conservation measures.
Maine fishermen cannot harvest egg-bearing females, which can carry 5,000 to 50,000 eggs. Likewise, there are both minimum and maximum size limits for lobster caught in Maine waters.
“In the state of Maine, the fishermen are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Backman said. “We’re doing the conservation that other states should be doing.”
It was a different story last year for fishermen who sought traditional groundfish species like cod, haddock and flounder.
The collapse of those species led to an emergency closure of 6,000 square miles of historically rich fishing grounds off New England in December. The emergency closure will extend through June 12.
One of the most beleaguered species is haddock, which yielded a mere 879 metric tons to fishermen in 1993 from the fertile Georges Bank fishing ground off Cape Cod. That compared to annual haddock catches of 50,000 metric tons in the 1940s and ’50s.
Many Maine lobstermen feared their livelihoods could be threatened if fishermen who used to target other species were forced to begin exploiting lobster to make a living.
Ed Blackmore, a retired lobsterman and past president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, predicted lobstermen will have to go to greater lengths to protect the lobster resource to keep it from going the way of groundfish.
But lobstermen have had trouble agreeing on additional conservation measures like limiting the number of traps or setting a moratorium. There are already 2 million traps on the ocean floor during the summer.
A bill introduced in the Maine Legislature this year would establish a moratorium on lobster licenses until the industry can establish an apprenticeship program. It would establish a limit of 1,200 traps that would be reduced to 800 traps over four years.