Maine lobsters head for border

ELLSWORTH — A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report published last week says that increasing water temperatures are pushing lobsters farther up the East Coast.

According to NOAA climatologists, ocean temperatures around the globe have risen about 0.12 degrees centigrade (just under one-quarter degree Fahrenheit) per decade since 1980. That’s an increase of more than three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit over the past 36 years.

In the coastal Northeast, sea surface temperatures increased at nearly double the global rate from 1982 to 2006. The warming sea surface temperature – attributable to climate change – is pushing populations of the American lobster farther north than ever before.

The latest available landings data collected by NOAA shows a marked change in the distribution of lobster landings from 1967 to 2014 and confirms what virtually everybody in the lobster industry knows. The population of lobsters has moved steadily northward over the past 50 years, decimating fishing communities along the coast.

As the lobster stock moved to higher latitudes, the lobster industry in New York and southern New England collapsed. In 1996, the fishery’s most profitable year, New York lobstermen reported landings of 9.4 million pounds. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, landings had shrunk to only 215,980 pounds – a 97.7 percent drop.

The story is the same everywhere throughout southern New England. From the most profitable year for each state’s fishery, Connecticut’s lobster landings fell 96.6 percent, and Rhode Island’s landings dropped 70.3 percent.

Beginning in 2000, lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine started to “explode.” From 1994 to 2014, Maine’s lobster landings surged 219 percent to more than 124 million pounds, a drop of nearly 4 million pounds from 2013.

The news is unlikely to look any better any time soon.

In 2015, scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland said that sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are warming 99 percent faster than on the rest of the planet and will rise between 2 degrees and 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. The amount of temperature increase will depend on the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, scientists say.

There is plenty of evidence that water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are increasing at a steady pace.

Data compiled by the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems from a buoy on the Eastern Maine Shelf shows that the mean water temperature at a depth of 1 meter (about 3.3 feet) during July was about 54.4 degrees Fahrenheit, some 2.2 degrees warmer than the mean temperature in July recorded between 2001 and now. Similar data have been recorded at several ocean data buoys in the Gulf of Maine.

The difference was even greater in 2012, the warmest year on record so far.

Lobsters thrive in water temperatures up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Above that, the crustaceans are vulnerable to infection and reproductive issues. So, NOAA scientists say, warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine could continue to push the concentrations of lobster farther north, eventually into the waters off Newfoundland and in Gulf of St. Lawrence.

That might be good news for Canadian fishermen but definitely not for Maine’s lobster industry.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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