By Ted Reckas, Special to the Independent
Three weeks before the sanctioned start of the local lobster-hunting season, Rodger Healy motored out of Dana Point Harbor in his boat, loaded with traps. They were rigged with special mesh, small enough to catch everything, including illegal, undersized juvenile lobsters. He hoped to get a good haul that day.
On board was Ed Parnell, a coastal shelf ecologist from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Together, they were going to record the size, sex, and GPS coordinates of the juveniles before tagging them and throwing them back to nestle into the rocky holes whence they came.
The joint effort between lobster fishermen, state wildlife regulators, Kevin Hovel of San Diego State University, Ed Parnell, of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and ocean advocates successfully marked 5,000 lobsters between San Diego and Dana Point before lobster season opened Oct. 1. The tags will remain in place even if the lobster molts.
The study aims to establish baseline data on California spiny lobster populations, range, structure and habitat, so researchers can eventually learn how fishery closures in six marine protected areas affect the species. Laguna Beach’s coastline is among the areas where more restrictive protections forbidding fishing and lobster hunting take effect Jan. 1.
“It’s a huge collaboration with DFG, fishermen, etc. because we all want to find out what’s really going on,” said John Valencia, executive director of San Diego Ocean Foundation. The research was funded by a $990,000 grant through the Ocean Protection Council, a government entity.
A 2002 study by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans shows that protected areas are effective at restoring depleted fish populations. The Anacapa Island marine reserve, where lobster fishing is prohibited, has larger and more abundant spiny lobster than surrounding areas, and the kelp forest ecosystem is more stable because of lobster preying on kelp-eating sea urchins.
The lobster fishery rose to the fore during local debates in 2009 and ’10 over revisions of the 10-year-old Marine Life Protection Act. Conservationists contended the ocean needed respite from over-fishing, while lobster fishermen said they were being punished even though their fishing practices did not deplete lobster populations.
Even so, the state’s Lobster and Trap Fisherman’s Association dropped pursuing a sustainable rating from the Marine Stewardship Council because of the expense of required studies said Healy, the association’s president. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, however, gives the fishery a top sustainability rating based on a 2004 report, but notes gaps in data.
Tracking of commercial landings since 1916 suggested the depletion of lobsters once, in 1975, when the catch plummeted to 152,000 pounds from a normal state-wide haul of 200,000 to 400,000 pounds, according to state Department of Fish and Game records. As a result, authorities required modifications to lobster traps with ports, allowing undersized lobsters not yet of reproductive maturity to escape. The catch rebounded. Between 1989 and 1998 average catches were between 600,000 to 950,000 pounds, DFG records show.
Nevertheless, Seafood Watch’s report points out that recreational lobster hunting is largely unpoliced. “There is great uncertainty about the extent of the take of undersized lobsters.” Recreational fishermen caught just under half as many lobster as their commercial counterparts, according to a state Department of Fish and Game report on the 2008-09 season.
Lobster tagging aims to remove uncertainty by establishing population data that can be compared to future data to determine the health of the population.
Once lobster season ends, in March, researchers will tag at least 20,000 more lobsters in marine reserves in Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach, and in San Diego County near Encinitas, Matlahuayl, South La Jolla and Cabrillo.
California spiny lobsters reach breeding maturity when their carapace exceeds 2.5 inches, which takes at least three years. The minimum legal size for the fishery was set at 3.25 inches, reached at seven to 11 years, to provide lobsters one or two seasons to breed before they become legal targets.
Anyone who catches a tagged lobster is encouraged to visit taggedlobster.com to input its location, its size and date of capture.
Laguna Beach resident Ted Reckas is a former Indy staffer.