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Fishermen feel pinch of cutbacks as lobster stocks fall

Spiny lobsters, a mainstay of the Bermudian menu and a key source of income for many fishermen, have undergone a population crash in recent years (File photograph)

Drastic cutbacks in lobster fishing are on the table only weeks before the season resumes for the high-value catch prized by local diners.

Fishermen were informed last week that the ranks of those eligible to bring in lobster would be slashed from 22 to 11, according to Allan Bean, the president of the Fishermen’s Association of Bermuda, who said the news was poorly received at a meeting.

“What they have put on the table is really not acceptable,” Mr Bean said.

“The season restarts in three weeks. We’re very upset they have put this on fishermen at such short notice.”

Mr Bean said cutbacks would likely make lobster fishing “not economically feasible”, and criticised the move after some fishermen had purchased new equipment in anticipation of the imminent September 1 to March 31 season.

The move comes six years after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources sounded the alarm over the health of Bermuda’s population of the crustaceans.

Mr Bean acknowledged spiny lobsters were facing a host of difficulties in Bermuda waters.

“We understand the dilemma we are in. But there has to be a better way to do it,” he said.

Mr Bean suggested putting off restrictions for one more season to explore other options.

Admitting the proposal was controversial, the veteran fisherman said Bermuda might need to explore culling its turtle numbers.

“That would have been a hard pill to swallow,” Mr Bean said. “But they have to face reality.”

Bermuda’s lobsters have been imperilled by a complex ecological knock-on effect that scientists have linked to the collapse in shark populations.

Restrictions on shark fishing were imposed last year, with Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, highlighting that the overfishing of an apex predator also sought-after for the traditional Bermudian dish of shark hash had ended up profoundly disrupting the marine environment.

Sharks of various species prey on green turtles.

With shark numbers at a low, an overabundance of turtles has led the grazing sea reptiles to devour much of the island’s seagrass beds.

Without seagrass for cover, juvenile lobsters are easily snapped up by fish, causing the numbers of lobsters eligible for catching to falter.

Earlier this year, the Bermuda Turtle Project sounded the alarm over marine turtles left starving because of their underwater food source had been exhausted.

Mr Bean said fishermen has been well aware of the issue for years.

“We recognise the science,” he told The Royal Gazette. “We’re the ones out on the water and we reported it but yet they want to impose restrictions on us or shut the fishery down.”

Fishermen who rely on the catch for their income should be compensated financially, he said.

Spiny lobsters are nocturnal, venturing out from reefs and rock crevices to forage on the sea floor. Fishermen catch them using traps leased from the Bermuda Government.

According to a proposal seen by the Gazette, the reduction of licences and traps imposed over the past five years has not been enough for a recovery of the lobster population.

The DENR has proposed giving the lobster stock more time to rebuild while permitting modest takings.

A maximum of 11 licensed lobster fishermen is planned for 2023-24, and the same number for 2024-25.

Eligible participants would be selected by lottery from the last season — and those not selected for the coming season would be given the next season for fishing.

The number of traps per fisherman would remain set at 12, with an individual catch limit of 800.

Mr Bean said any suggestion of culling turtles to permit seagrass to regrow had been flatly rejected by the ministry.

“Culling is just a term for killing,” he said. “And the turtle population has started to die off.”

But he insisted fishermen were entitled to a break in the meantime.

“Fishermen are trying to make ends meet. We recognise there’s a problem. Fishermen should be compensated.”

The DENR was asked for a comment.

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Published August 08, 2023 at 7:56 am (Updated August 08, 2023 at 7:54 am)

Fishermen feel pinch of cutbacks as lobster stocks fall

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