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Why the cost of lobster goes up and up

The life of a lobsterman is not an easy one. But the independence and the fresh, salty air have lured generations of Americans back to the sea. From the coast of Maine to as far south as North Carolina, they haul in their traps and capture what has become one of the country's greatest delicacies.

Now this way of life is being threatened by escalating fuel prices and ever higher equipment costs. At the same time, overfishing threatens to knock many marginally profitable operations out of the business. And government-subsidized Canadian competition is pressing Americans.

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It is with these concerns in mind that new federal regulations currently are being written.

Before the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (better known as the 200-mile-limit), the job of overseeking the lobster industry fell entirely upon the states. Often, two bordering states had dramaticcally different regulations, which added confusion in the industry.

TSometime in the next year or two, however, a lobster management plan for federal waters (three to 200 miles off the coast) will become law.

Charged with devising this plan is the New England Fishery Management Council , one of eight coastal councils formed after the enactment of the 200-mile-limit law to regulate the fishing industry. Because the federal government must depend to a great extent on states to enforce any new regulations, the council has been trying to make the plan a cooperative effort.

No one on the council will deny that achieving uniformity among state lobster laws will be a challenge. Lobster-producing states (including Maine, which accounts for 55 percent of all American-caught lobster) will be expected to conform to the federal law.

Overfishing is one of the main problems the council will try to solve. During the past 20 years, the number of lobster traps has tripled to 2 million. There were 12,710 lobster fishermen in 1978, up from 8,405 in 1965.

Not surprisingly, lobstermen complain that their share of the catch is constantly getting smaller. And with such a high percentage of the available lobsters being caught, biologists say the crop has been unable to reproduce as it should.

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Operating costs are another burden on lobstermen. In recent years, profits have not kept up with increases in equipment prices. A boat and equipment can cost upwards of $50,000.

US lobstermen charge that Canadian imports, which comprise about 45 percent of the lobster eaten in the US, help keep prices down. This competition is unfair, they say, because low-interest loans and other benefits, such as a break on fuel costs, are available to Canadian but not, for the most part, to Americans.

"We're sort of paddling our own canoes while someone else is helping them," says Edward Blackmore, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

In a move intended to boost profits by eliminating the wholesaler, the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association is asking for government financial help to form a co-op.

In spite of these problems, lobstermen hauled in a record 37.2 million pounds of lobster last year, valued at $72.3 million. But according to Howard Russell, staff biologist for the New England Fisheries Management Council, there would eventually be more pounds of lobster caught if fewer traps were set.

One idea marine biologists have considered is establishing a lobster refuse area where the stock could be replenished. But such a plan has little support at this point.

Present efforts to improve the catch center on how large lobsters should be before they can be legally caught.

Most states have been moving toward a size of 3 3/16 inches, measured from the eye to the beginning of the tail. Some in the industry want to raise the gauge even further because at the 3 3/16 size, most females that are caught have not spawned.

Another regulations, which may be fought in some states, is the provision for an escape hatch in traps for lobsters under legal size. In Maine and Massachusetts, the escape hatch has been credited by lobstermen with cutting down on mortality among undersized lobsters.

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