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Fight is on over whether to let scuba divers fish for lobsters

Maine lobsters (Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr)

A previously smooth-sailing effort to have New Hampshire join most coastal states in permitting scuba divers to fish for lobsters has encountered choppy waters.

Three weeks ago, the state House of Representatives approved the proposed legislation by a nearly 3-1 margin.

Now one of its key supporters is urging the state Senate to kill the bill, as is Fish and Game’s chief law enforcement officer, who called it the most “horrible” and unenforceable expansion of fishing that’s been proposed in his 33 years on the job.

The fight pits environmentalists, who say a limited scuba lobstering season would help clean up an ocean floor littered with lobster traps, against those who run trawlers each day and insist the change threatens to put them out of business.

The measure would provide licensing for up to 100 scuba divers to take up to three lobsters a day by hand for consumption by themselves, “their families and guests.”

Lobster season for scuba divers would run from April 1 through Sept. 15, and those with licenses could dive for the crustaceans at least four weeks during that period.

Advocates said divers would take 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of lobsters this way, a tiny fraction of the 5 to 6 million pounds commercial and recreational lobstermen take out of the sea each year off the New Hampshire coast.

The legislation also would empower divers to free lobsters caught in traps whose buoys have broken off.

Rep. Jonathan Smith, R-Ossipee, said studies conclude as many as 10% of lobster traps a year are lost at sea.

“This bill is about protecting the environment from the degradation of plastic and the indiscriminate killing via derelict ghost lobster traps as well as fulfilling the mission of Fish and Game to preserve, protect and increase the sustainability of the natural resource and their habitats, as well as provide greater access to all of its citizens,” Smith told the House.

“This equates to around 1,100 additional indiscriminate killing machines known as ghost traps being added every year to the bottom of the ocean.”

The House passed the bill (HB 242), 276-100. Republicans backed it, 174-16; Democrats were more split but still backed it, 102-84.

But Rep. Chris Muns, D-Hampton, went to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s hearing last week and reversed his course.

“After speaking directly to the marine biologist and several others in the industry, I must admit that I was wrong,” Muns said.

Muns said the ghost trap phenomenon was overblown.

The actual number of lost traps a year is more like 100, most of which end up washing ashore during heavier winter tides, he said.

“Scuba fishing is more aggressive. The diver must find the burrow where the lobster lives and can destroy the breeding ground,” Muns said.

Other opponents charged House leaders used “ringers” to fill temporary vacancies on the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee so the panel would come out for it, 13-7.

“Tired of mandates”

Col. Kevin Jordan, head of Fish and Game’s Law Enforcement Division, said this bill would require his office to create a $30,000 database of lobster trap locations.

“I am tired of being mandated to do things with no funding to do it,” Jordan began.

The agency would be unable to police scuba divers who could try to poach lobsters from commercial traps, Jordan said.

“I would struggle to find anyone who supports it. I have never seen anything like it. This would be horrible, absolutely unenforceable,” Jordan said. “I am not going to have an officer in a scuba tank down watching divers.”

In 2021, the Legislature created a Derelict Fish Gear and Coastal Cleanup Fund, and on Saturday state officials and commercial lobstermen hosted the 29th year of a volunteer effort to sweep the beaches and drop off lost traps at the Rye Harbor and Hampton Harbor state marinas.

The Fish and Game Commission and the Advisory Committee on Marine Fisheries also came out against the bill.

Divers vs. lobstermen

Commercial lobstermen packed the Senate hearing, insisting scuba divers would damage the lobsters’ ecosystem.

“We have sustained this fishery for over 100 years,” said Eric Anderson, a commercial fisherman with 50 years of experience. “This could literally decimate it.”

Cheri Patterson, head of Fish and Game’s Marine Resources Division, agreed lobster diving could endanger the resource.

But scuba divers testified that New Hampshire already allows them to hunt for up to 12 sea crabs a day, and diving to take lobsters by hand would protect the species’ health.

“This is a very reasonable proposal and respects the environment,” said Graham Birch of Hollis, a part-time scuba diving instructor who works with Aquatic Specialties in Merrimack.

Luis Figueroa of Merrimack said commercial fishing for lobsters does far more damage to lobsters than divers, who would not be diving near commercial traps.

“It is common sense for scuba divers hunting for crab and lobsters to avoid the waters where lobster pots are laid, and divers will tend to be closer into the shore, along the cliff lines, where it would not be safe for commercial lobstermen to work and drop their pots because of the likelihood of those lobster pots being caught in the rocks and the tidal zones restricting their access,” Figueroa said.

Opponents fail to understand that diving for lobsters requires unique skill that protects the lobsters, said Weldon Bosworth of Gilford, who has been a scuba diver for nearly 60 years and dove for lobsters in Massachusetts.

“The trick in taking a lobster is to ambush it either by divers working in pairs, one diver distracting the lobster and the other blocking its retreat, sneaking up behind its refuge or if lobster is mostly in its refuge using a ‘tickle stick’ to reach back into its burrow and stimulate it to come out whereupon it can be grabbed,” Bosworth said.

Maine, which accounts for 85% of the nation’s lobster haul, is the only other East Coast state that doesn’t allow scuba lobster fishing.

“If this is such a great idea, why isn’t Maine doing this?” Jordan asked.

After a few hours of testimony, Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, recessed last week’s hearing and scheduled another session today to conclude it.


(c) 2023 The New Hampshire Union Leader

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