Pete Ringen cannot imagine his life without lobsters.
"My first lobster license I had in '68," he said as he stood on the dock in Northport, a sleepy harbor on Long Island Sound.
Ringen keeps his white hair pulled back in a ponytail beneath a grimy ball cap that says "The older I get the better I was." He's 70 years old and smells vaguely of the seawater that provides for him and his family. He has been fishing for lobster in these waters for more than 40 years but his time may be running out.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a 15-state regulatory body responsible for the waters off the US eastern seaboard, is debating a measure that could effectively end the lobster industry south of Cape Cod for the current generation of lobstermen. The Commission's American Lobster Management Board is deciding whether to impose a five-year moratorium on all lobster fishing from Southern New England to North Carolina. Scientists believe the lobster population is dwindling and it needs time to replenish.
"There are no recruits coming in. No baby lobsters to replace the bigger ones that are come out, and that's what really has most of the scientists concerned," Jim Gilmore of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said.
The American Lobster Management Board says a combination of overfishing and environmental factors contribute to declining stocks. Rising sea temperatures appear to hinder lobster reproduction and the latest assessment found the lobster stock to be in "poor condition."
"Fishery performance indicators are generally negative," the report said. "Catches and abundance are cascading downward."
Pete Ringen has a different assessment: "They're out of their minds," he said.
Ringen said marine biologists fail to see what he sees from his boat, Sea Searcher, every time he has been out on the water recently.
"It's coming back. Little by little it's coming back."
Atlantic Lobstermen: Endangered Species?If that's true, the lobster stock of Long Island Sound is certainly not coming back to what it was in its heyday in the 1990s when the area accounted for a quarter of the Northeast catch. Today it's about seven percent. As the catch has dwindled, so has the number of lobstermen. Ringen is one of two left in Northport. George Doll, who serves as village mayor, is the other. He fishes from his boat "Christine and Jenny," named for his daughters.
"The signs I see this year are good," Doll said. "It's not as good as it used to be but I get up every morning and I get out and put together a day's pay."
In a tee-shirt, shorts and white rubber boots stained brown, Doll sips coffee from a paper cup at dawn and points out other lobster boats that now sit idle in Northport harbor.
"That blue boat over there? He's done. There's a white boat behind that one. Those guys are done. They're clamming. There's a white boat straight out here. He quit and does carpentry work."
His livelihood and his profession face extinction if the Commission adopts the five-year ban.
"I'm going to be 70," Doll said. "After taking a five year break I don't think I'll be going back to it."