Changing ecosystem, disease challenge lobster industry

In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine has seen an increase in the number of lobsters and a higher demand for lobsters in international markets, which have translated into a boom for Maine’s lobster industry. Recently, however, there have been concerns about what effect a changing climate and disease threats may have on the lobster population off the coast of the state.

As water temperatures rose in the Atlantic off the coast of southern New England and Maine, lobster landings off the coast of Maine rose from under 40 million pounds in 1981 to 140 million in 2013, according to data from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

By contrast, landings in southern New England went from just over 20 million pounds in 1997, to less than 5 million pounds in 2013.

That change in population is both a boon and a benefit to the lobster economy Down East.

“In New England, we’re sort of straddling the adverse and the positive effects, if you will, of a warming climate,” said Richard Wahle, a marine researcher at the University of Maine. “The fishery has all but collapsed in southern New England, whereas not too much farther north, just into the Gulf of Maine, we’re seeing record abundance of lobsters.

“Things have just really taken off in the past 10-15 years” in the eastern part of Maine, Wahle continued.

A big part of the reason for the lobster population increase here is rising water temperatures off the coast.

“Historically, in this eastern part of the Gulf of Maine, water temperatures have been on the cold side of the comfort zone for lobsters, so any warming actually has a favorable effect in promoting larval settlements and larval development settlement growth,” Wahle said.

Another factor has been the reduction of natural predators of lobster, including many types of groundfish.

“Groundfish are among the key predators and sources of mortality especially for juvenile lobsters. There’s pretty strong circumstantial evidence indicating a strong correlation between the declines of codfish, haddock, flounder and other groundfish species that prey on small crustaceans and lobster population growth,” Wahle said.

In addition to climate change, a disease also has been plaguing New England’s lobster fishery. The disease, called epizootic shell disease and characterized by lesions in the shell of a lobster that can spread over its entire body, has been affecting lobsters in Southern Maine and “has been devastating to the industry in the coastal waters of New England,” according to research reports.

Representatives from Maine’s lobster business say that there are measures in place to protect against the problems that arise from a changing climate and that these steps have been successful and have benefited the fishermen.

“We always focus on what we can control,” said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “Our messaging is always about the fact that we’ve had sustainability measures in Maine for 150 years…It’s an outdoor sport, and Mother Nature is going to rule the day in the end. But we’re doing what we can.”

“We’ve been rewarded,” he continued. “Our climate change story is not one of scarcity.”

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute predicts that this year’s lobster harvest will start earlier than normal, with a total catch similar to that of 2013.

Last year, Maine caught more than 120 million pounds, almost $500 million worth of lobster. That was 3 million pounds less, but almost $50 million more, than in the previous year.

Hancock County accounted for one third of all lobster landed, hauling in over 40 million pounds and adding over $165 million to the economy.

Recently, the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Research Institute received a $127,000 grant from the Department of Marine Resources to study the effects of ocean acidification and rising water temperatures on lobster health and population off the coast of Maine.

Matt Mitterhoff

Matt Mitterhoff

Matt Mitterhoff

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