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On the Water: Lobster Lament

Tue, 04/30/2024 - 12:31
Jon M. Diat caught some lobster on his first trip of the season, but with the local lobster population in decline, it was nothing like his catches from years gone by.
Robert Cugini

Looking recently at my logbook of nearly 40 years, I noticed a significant decrease in my catch of lobsters. Sure, there were some brief aberrations, but I’ve seen a clear downward spiral that’s been especially acute in the past five years. My handwritten notes and observations are hard to ignore.

Even Maine, where they catch more than 90 percent of the nation’s lobsters per year, landed 5 percent less in 2023. Maine’s lobster population has been in flux for over a decade as the highly prized crustaceans continue to push northward to colder waters in Canada.

According to the University of New England, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s ocean surface. Not good news for our cold-water-loving lobster. And the story is worse, much worse, in our local waters here farther to the south.

That said, bad weather delayed me in putting my traps in this spring. April 22 was the first time I was able to check on my gear, and I was prepared to be disappointed once again.

Joining me on the long trip to the lobster grounds to the northeast were Ray Sperling and Robert Cugini. Sperling has been my longtime first mate and designated “bait boy” who handles the gear while I man the helm station inside the main cabin.

For most of the year, Cugini, who owns a house in Sag Harbor with his wife, Mary, calls Seattle home. There, Dungeness crab is king. The highly prized and savored crab is also caught in the debate and maelstrom of dwindling catches.

“I don’t have very high hopes for the season,” I said to the both of them in the main cabin of the Rock Water on the ride out. “Still, it’s a nice day to be on the water and I’m sure we’ll probably scratch out a dinner or two.”

As we neared the first of my orange-painted buoys, the water temperature was a still chilly 45 degrees, according to my fish finder. A few curious seals bopped about in the flat calm water. They seemed pleased to see us.

“Okay, fingers crossed,” I said as I began to pull up the first trap. As it reached the surface, I could see there were two keeper-size lobsters inside. It was a surprisingly good start.

The next trap was about 20 yards away. It contained two more keepers. However, one of them was an egg-laden female, which was safely returned back to the water. Sadly, it was the only egger I saw that morning. Egg-bearing females are the future of future lobsters.

The next 13 traps were a mixed bag. One had four keepers and another had three. Most of the rest came up empty, if you don’t include the numerous spider crabs that found themselves trapped in the wire cages. And, no, spider crabs, which are incredibly plentiful, are sadly not edible.

All told, after we checked and re-baited all of the traps, it was the lowest catch of lobsters on my first excursion to the lobster grounds over several decades. I was not surprised. My expectations had proven correct.

Still, I looked forward to having my first taste of fresh lobster since last fall when I returned home later. The smell of freshly steamed lobster permeated the kitchen as the accompanying drawn butter stayed warm on the stove. I savored every bite.

It’s been sad to watch the demise of our local inshore lobster fishery over the years. I grew up here catching multitudes of winter flounder, but they are gone, much like the dinosaur. Kids and many adults today have no clue what a flounder looks like.

It appears lobsters are on the same course, and that’s most unfortunate.

Turning the page to fish, there is thankfully some better news to report for anglers who hold a rod and reel.

With the warming waters, striped bass have shown up in larger quantities and they have been bigger in both weight and length in recent days. The ocean beaches have been especially productive, especially at night for those who cast a swimming plug. Anglers should remember that they can retain one bass per day between 28 and 31 inches.

Weakfish have appeared in increasing numbers in the western Peconics. Fishermen are allowed to retain one weakfish over 16 inches per day.

The recreational fishery for porgy opened up yesterday, while the season for fluke commences on Saturday. Porgies should be quite plentiful. Anglers should focus their effort on the west side of Jessup’s Neck in Little Peconic Bay. It will be a few weeks before the fish migrate eastward toward Gardiner’s Island and Montauk as the waters warm.

Squid have also begun to show up in decent quantities out at Montauk and at the commercial dock in Greenport. The commercial dock in Three Mile Harbor should also have some by now, especially under the cover of darkness. How long they remain here is uncertain.

Those yellow-eyed demons, better known as bluefish, savor the flesh of squid, and are not far behind them in showing up in our local waters. Once the bluefish arrive in force, the easily frightened cephalopods will be on the run toward safer open water.

Far offshore, the fishing has been good when the weather allows. One of my fishing partners, Robert Cooley, hopped aboard the Miss Montauk II last weekend on a long-range excursion to the tilefish grounds far off to the east. The long ride that Capt. Jamie Quaresimo guided paid off for all aboard with a bountiful catch of the tasty tiles.

Tilefish reside in depths anywhere between 400 and 1,000 feet of water, presenting a special challenge to anglers. Hardy souls with strong arms are most welcome to apply. Yet Cooley was all smiles when he returned to the dock on Sunday.

“There were 15 of us aboard and we all caught our limits,” he said. “It was a great trip.”

Finally, the charter boat Oh Brother!, under the longtime guidance of Capt. Rob Aaronson out of Montauk, stayed closer to home, where the captain put his fares on to a nice catch of codfish and ling on Saturday in calm seas. Plenty of fillets were awarded to the six who sailed upon her deck.


Fishing tips, observations, and photographs can be sent to [email protected].

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