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Conn. lobstermen coping with 1st seasonal closure

John Christoffersen, Associated Press

FILE - In this in Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 file photo, Mike Theiler pulls lobsters he harvested out of a basket on a dock in New London, Conn. Theiler is among about two dozen full-time lobstermen in Connecticut preparing for the first seasonal shutdown on Long Island Sound. The closure begins Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, through Nov. 28. It aims to reduce the total lobster harvest by 10 percent this year to give the sound’s depleted lobster population a chance to rebuild. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Connecticut lobstermen have survived storms and struggled with poor prices, die-offs and a prolonged plunge in the population that they count on for a livelihood. Now the dwindling ranks of aging, full-time lobsterman are removing their traps to comply with the first seasonal shutdown on Long Island Sound.

The closure, which begins Sunday and lasts through Nov. 28, aims to reduce the total lobster harvest by 10 percent this year to give the sound's depleted lobster population a chance to rebuild. Amid skepticism it will reverse their fortunes, lobstermen are tightening their belts, shifting to other fishing, laying off crews, thinking about jobs on shore and wondering how they'll survive the latest challenge.

"You won't find a group of harder-working or more industrious guys," said Michael Theiler, one of about two dozen full-time lobstermen in Connecticut compared to more than 200 a decade ago. "If there is anyone who is going to survive something like this, it's going to be lobstermen. I couldn't tell you how we're going to do it or what it's going to take."

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission required New York and Connecticut to take steps to reduce the total lobster harvest by 10 percent in 2013. The timing was requested by lobstermen to coincide with a drop in wholesale prices to minimize the harm.

"The economic impact should be well less than 10 percent," said David Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "This is just another call for diversification. They've already had to diversify and not just depend on one resource."

Until a few years ago, lobsters represented about 90 percent of Al Schaffer's income. Now it's down to 50 percent, and he plans to do additional fishing beside lobsters because of the moratorium.

"It's going to financially hurt us," said Schaffer, who lives in New York and figures he'll have to cut back on his Florida vacation and eating out.

The fishery has been in decline for 15 years. Last year, 250,000 pounds of lobster was caught in Connecticut, down from 3.8 million pounds in the peak year of 1998, Simpson said.

A number of potential contributing factors have been cited, including higher water temperatures, pesticide residue, diseases and more predators such as striped bass, scup and other species seen as preventing the lobsters from rebuilding. Results from the latest study are expected in November, Simpson said.

Scientific experts had recommended a five-year ban, but a 10 percent reduction that led to the three-month closure was the longest time period that could be agreed on, Simpson said. Environmental conditions such as water temperature, predation and disease are playing a major role in the collapse, but there was no clear indication that any amount of conservation will bring the stock back to normal levels, he said.

Theiler and Michael Gimshaw, president of the Southern New England Fishermen & Lobstermen's Association, expect they'll have to lay off two crewmen each during the closure. Theiler isn't sure what he'll do but said he may do some other fishing and work on his boat.

"I don't think that anyone really believes that they are going to come out of this unscathed," Theiler said. "But if we want to bring lobsters back, the first step is leaving more lobsters in the water."

Theiler, a 47-year-old Waterford resident who has three children in college, was busy taking hundreds of traps out of the water this week. It's the first time in a quarter century he's taking all his traps out of the water.

Theiler, vice president of the Connecticut Lobstermen's Association, said lobstermen will take a financial hit but will find a way to persevere.

"I'm sure we'll all do what we need to do to get through it, but it's not going to be very easy. There's really nothing that is going to replace the lobster here," he said.

Theiler agreed that the three-month lobster moratorium is the best option. He predicted it would achieve the 10 percent goal but would not replenish the lobster population long term.

The lobster decline has affected southern New England and farther south, but Maine and Canada are continuing to do well. That has kept prices low for lobstermen, making it difficult to turn a profit.

The typical lobsterman in Connecticut is in his late 50s, Theiler said. A few may quit after the seasonal shutdown, he said.

"I think most of us will find a way to hang on," Theiler said.