09/13/13 10:00am
09/13/2013 10:00 AM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Matt DeMaula is one of only a handful of North Fork lobstermen who still fish in Long Island Sound. Last week’s closure marked the first time Sound waters have been closed to lobster fishing for an extended period of time.

A third-generation lobsterman, Matt DeMaula has patrolled Long Island Sound alongside his father and uncles for more than two decades.

When he thinks back to his early days in the profession, the Mattituck native can recall some remarkable fall seasons.

“We used to call them ‘Septembers to remember,’ ” Mr. DeMaula said as he prepared to take the last of his lobster traps out of the Sound Friday. “We’ll never have another one of those.”

On Sunday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed Sound waters to lobster harvesting through Nov. 28, following a decision made last February by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates Southern New England area fisheries. The move marks the first time in the fishery’s history that the state is shutting down harvesting in the Sound.

The commission’s goal is to decrease lobster landings by 10 percent annually, helping to rebuild the Sound’s “depleted” lobster population, according to the DEC.

“They should have done it 20 years ago,” said lobsterman and Southold Town Trustee Jimmy King. He has been lobster fishing out of Mattituck Inlet for more than 50 years and is a former president of the Long Island Lobstermen’s Association.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Matt DeMaula (right) and his father, Anthony, had to pull all their lobster traps from Sound waters by this past Sunday. The two would normally be catching lobsters throughout September, weather permitting.

A combination of rising water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen, pesticide runoff and nitrogen loading proved too much for the crustaceans, causing an extreme die-off in 1999, said Emerson Hasbrouck, senior marine environmental issues educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

“[The lobster] simply haven’t recovered since,” Mr. King said.

Both Mr. Hasbrouck and Mr. King said the decline was driven by the environmental impacts rather than pressure from overfishing the Sound.

At the industry’s height in 1996, lobstermen landed 9.4 million pounds of lobster from Sound waters, equaling $32.9 million in revenue, according to state DEC data. That year the state DEC issued 932 resident commercial lobster permits.

By 2012, lobstermen caught just 269,000 pounds from Sound waters, generating $975,000, according to the same data. Only 334 resident commercial lobster permits were issued that year.

“There’s hardly anything being caught in the Sound anymore,” Mr. Hasbrouck said. “Most of the lobstermen have gotten out of it. They’ve either left fishing altogether or they are involved in other fisheries.”

Lobstermen once traveled to Orient from as far as City Island in the Bronx to fish for lobster in the Sound, Mr. Hasbrouck said. A couple of hundred men tended the many lobster boats, each of which was typically fishing about 1,000 pots.

“Today, you simply couldn’t make it as a lobsterman,” Mr. King said.

Only a handful of lobstermen continue the trade locally, including Mr. DeMaula and Phil Karlin, 72, of Riverhead. Each has had to diversify as lobster stocks have dwindled, catching finfish or conch to help make a living.

“I think what we’re afraid of is that once regulations like these come down, the restrictions will never be taken off — no matter how good things get again,” Mr. Karlin said. “I think that scares people. It does scare me in some respects.”

Mr. DeMaula said rather than a full closure of the Sound he would have preferred a management plan regulating the number of traps lobstermen can use, a strategy he says has worked in Maine.

A decade ago, Mr. DeMaula fished using 600 to 700 traps. This year, he said, he used only 125.

“That wasn’t a state-planned restriction, it was a self-imposed reduction,” he said. “The amount of [lobster] I was catching didn’t warrant me putting them all in. That’s a 10 percent reduction achieved without the closure.”

The closure dates, Sept. 8 to Nov. 28, were decided on by lobstermen from New York and Connecticut on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s lobster conservation management team.

It comes “during a time when water temperature is high and stressful to lobster” and “when lobster often experience a secondary molting event,” according to state DEC officials.

Mr. Karlin said the closure would not affect him, as most of his traps are out of Sound waters by early September.

However, Mr. DeMaula said he is losing several weeks of income. He would otherwise be fishing throughout September and would begin fishing again before Thanksgiving.

For him, the fall closure adds to the many regulations that make it difficult to make a living as a fisherman, he said.

“It’s just frustrating for me,” Mr. DeMaula said. “I wasn’t going to be a millionaire, but I got to make an honest living spending time on the water with family.

“None of the young guys want to deal with the regulations,” he said. “It’s a way of life that’s being lost.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

07/26/12 7:00pm
07/26/2012 7:00 PM

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | An employee of Covanta Energy taking a lobster pot recovered from Mattituck Inlet last fall to be recycled. Longtime lobsterman Jimmy King said at the height of the boom, lobstermen were filling 1,000 to 1,200 traps a day, and many left their gear in the Sound.

Will next year’s looming ban on taking lobster from Long Island Sound help bolster local lobster numbers and revive the faltering fishery that was once worth $100 million to the local economy?

Nobody really knows, but some think it will certainly put the hurt on already suffering lobstermen, whose numbers have dwindled from several hundred down to about 50 over the past decade.

Adrienne Esposito of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment is one of the program’s critics.

“We have less lobstermen in the Sound than ever in the history of our state,” Ms. Esposito said. “Putting them out of business for three months in just plain cold.”

In February, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — a 15-state body that regulates the American lobster and other fisheries — approved an 11-week closure to take place in the fall of 2013. Commission spokeswoman Toni Kerns said the closure is part of a management plan intended to reduce lobster exploitation by 10 percent. She said she has not yet received official word from New York or Connecticut about specific dates the Sound will be closed to lobster fishing.

“They told us in February they’ll do a seasonal closure that will likely be in the fall and as far as I know, they’ll go to a closure,” Ms. Kerns said. She added, however, that “at any time a state can propose a conservation equivalency that will have the same effect” as closure of the fishery.

This means the states can decide at any time whether an outright a ban is the right way to reduce fishing efforts by 10 percent or whether to go another route.

It had yet to be determined this week what month next year closures would begin, Ms. Kerns said.

Southold Town Trustee and longtime lobsterman Jimmy King said he was unsure things would even play out as planned next year, at least not when it comes to the time the closure will take place.

“I don’t think they’re going to do a closure between September and December,” he said.

Mr. King said he’s been fishing the Sound for lobster for more than 50 years out of Mattituck Inlet, and that he and a nephew, Matt DeMaula, are the only ones left who still do. Most other lobstermen have switched over to conch, he said.

Mr. King believes a ban would be ineffective, in a “too little, too late” kind of way.

The commission should have been reining in catches before the die-off in the late ‘90s, he said.

“When the die-off occurred due to things like high water temperatures, pesticides and [harsh storms], the resource was already stressed from how much we were taking,” Mr. King said. “We raised the minimum size, they were talking about a complete moratorium and now they’re talking about a seasonal closure. We’re doing things now we should have done 20 years ago.”

He added that something that should be included with the seasonal ban is setting trap limits for those fishing the resource, as Maine does.

“Maine has strict trap limits while we went crazy out here,” he said. “There’s guys out here that were trapping 1,000, 1,200 traps a day and a lot of them just left their gear out there that we’ve had to use grant money to go out and collect. These guys just walked away and the taxpayers are now paying for someone to go out and get this gear back. It’s ridiculous.”

Ms. Esposito and Emerson Hasbrouck, marine director at the Cornell Cooperative Extension research group in Riverhead, agree that the diminished numbers of lobsters found in the Sound is not strictly the result of over-fishing, but rather the combination of higher water temperatures, pesticide run-off, salt water quality and unregulated fishing, which together caused an extreme die-off of the crustaceans in 1998 and 1999.

“Environmental and anthropogenic activities that don’t include fishing are suspects for that die-off,” Mr. Hasbrouck said. “The resource has not recovered from that.”

He said the results of a probable seasonal ban, part of a lobster management plan aimed to have a positive effect on the resource, are uncertain as of now.

“It’s possible it will work; we’ll have to see,” Mr. Hasbrouck said.

He’s also sure it will have a negative effect on already exasperated area fishermen.

“When the fishery was at its height in the mid- to late 1990’s, it was worth somewhere between 20 and 25 million dollars in landed value and up to $100 million to the economy,” Mr. Hasbrouck said. “That value is down to about $1 million. It’s been a significant drop-off and has had a similarly significant impact on people’s livelihoods, who have diversified their fishing in order to survive.”

Published reports put Long Island’s lobster catch peak at 8.8 million pounds in 1996 versus the roughly one million pounds caught in 1999.

Ms. Esposito said the coalition has been working hard with U.S. congressmen and senators to pass the Long Island Restoration Act, which seeks to secure funds to improve the welfare of local waters and bring back the prized crustacean.

“We’re asking for seven to 10 million dollars to implement restoration efforts,” she said. “That means restoring wetlands and sea grass populations, as well as reducing the amount of nitrogen going into the water. We have to look at the Sound holistically and restore the health of the water body.

“That will bring back the lobster. This is the fault of plastics and pesticides, not the lobstermen,” she said.

To Mr. King, the seasonal lobster ban won’t have much effect on North Fork lobstermen because, well, there just aren’t many left. “Most everyone,” he said, has already stopped fishing for lobster.

“I just brought in the last of my gear because there’s so little to catch. It can’t even pay for my fuel,” he said. “Lately it’s been near to nothing, 30 or 40 pounds a day.”

gvolpe@timesreview.com