Downturn in lobster numbers could be coming

WALPOLE — If Maine lobstermen aren’t facing enough uncertainty, what with the late wet spring that delayed the start of the fishery, the likely scarcity and high price of bait and coming federal whale protection rules that could force radical changes in the way that they set their gear, a recent report on where juvenile lobsters are settling on the sea floor to grow to maturity suggests that future lobster landings in Maine could show a steep decline.

Meanwhile, those in some parts of eastern Canada could surge upward.

Last month, University of Maine professor Rick Wahle released the 2018 update of his laboratory’s annual American Lobster Settlement Index.

According to the update, signals for the future of lobstering in the Gulf of Maine are mixed, but there is the likelihood of “a bright future” for the lobster fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, particularly off the northern shore of Prince Edward Island.

Wahle and other scientists connected with the university have been studying the settlement of tiny, post-larval lobsters since at least 2001. Over the course of time, according to this year’s report, the connection between settlement of young-of-the-year lobsters and future harvests has been firmly established.

Last year, Maine’s lobster landings increased to just over 119.6 million pounds from the 2017 total of 111.9 million. The 2018 landings were still substantially below 2016’s record haul of 132.6 million pounds.

At the same time, according to the index, Canadian lobster landings have been “booming,” with double-digit increases from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Last year, there was a repeat of 2017’s “tremendous settlement surge” in some Canadian waters but, in the Gulf of Maine the signs were less than clear.

Surveys by the Department of Marine Resources reflected “especially large numbers” of young lobsters too small to be caught legally in the cold deep waters offshore. That should mean good news for future harvests.

The settlement study told a different story.

Downeast, primarily east of Schoodic Point, the settlement numbers reflected a “minor uptick” from the 2017 numbers.

From Mount Desert Island to Cape Cod, though, settlement studies at a variety of locations — in Penobscot Bay, off the Midcoast, in Casco Bay and off York among them — “continued their string of well below-average numbers.” Some scientists think that the populations of lobsters may be moving north as waters off the Maine coast grow warmer.

Over the past several years, the settlement index has been a good predictor of future landings.

Young lobsters settle into the ocean bottom within a few weeks after hatching to take shelter as they grow. Settlement appears to occur later in cooler waters. Wahle and his colleagues track settlement at nearly two dozen locations between Rhode Island and Prince Edward Island.

Tying the annual settlement of tiny lobsters to future harvests is less than precise. Lobsters generally take about seven years from the time they hatch until they are large enough to be legal for fishermen to catch.

In this year’s update, though, Wahle looked at the settlement index numbers between 1988 and 2013 from a dozen sites along the Massachusetts, Maine and Canadian coasts, then prepared a “hindcast” to calculate what the landings volume would have predicted. He compared the hindcast to actual landings numbers and, in all but two cases, actual landings trends closely mirrored the predictions.

“In the end,” Wahle wrote, “the main goal of our research is to help stakeholders in the lobster fishery gain the lead time to make choices.”

The research also aims to give the lobster industry time “to consider the implications of potential declines in the fishery.”

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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