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June 5, 2017

Report: Fewer baby lobsters in the Gulf of Maine

Courtesy / Maine Department of Marine Resources
Courtesy / Maine Department of Marine Resources

The latest findings of an international monitoring program of American lobsters indicate that the number of young lobsters in the Gulf of Maine continues to fall.

The 2016 update from the American Lobster Settlement Index, an international monitoring program founded in 1989 by University of Maine marine scientist Rick Wahle, noted that the decline in baby lobsters has been occurring since 2007, despite an abundance of egg-bearing adult lobsters and record-breaking harvests.

The ALSI, a collaboration between fishermen and scientists, annually quantifies the population of newly settled American lobsters at more than 100 sites in lobster-producing regions of New England and Atlantic Canada. In the Gulf of Maine, most monitoring sites from Beaver Harbour, New Brunswick to Cape Cod Bay reported some of the lowest settlements since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

"If we were to see a collapse in the lobster catch, it would mean that we're already seven to eight years into a decline in the population," Wahle said in a news release. "Through ALSI, we can get an early warning of what might happen to the catch."

Wahle is a research professor in the School of Marine Sciences based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole. He is co-chairman of the 11th International Conference & Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management taking place this week at Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. The conference will focus on the impact of the changing ocean environment and the global economy on the biology and business of lobsters.

Storm clouds on horizon for lobster industry?

The findings about the continuing decline in baby lobsters come at a time when New England lobster landings have been stronger than ever — with 80% of the landings coming from the Maine coast and about three-quarters of the state's overall fishery value coming from lobster.

"A downward trend in lobster production could significantly impact the state's coastal economy in the future," the report stated.

New data sheds light on the paradox of increased egg production and lower populations of baby lobsters, with Wahle noting that the timeline shows levels of larvae mortality might be increasing during the monthlong gauntlet between the first and last lobster larval stage before settlement.

Changes in quantity or quality of the food that lobster larvae eat could be a mortality factor, Wahle said. The downward trend in lobster settlement parallels the declining abundance of the also-monitored copepod Calanus finmarchicus, which is food for larval lobsters.

Wahle said an increase in waterborne predators of lobster larvae and copepods also could explain the decline in both populations and explain why fewer baby lobsters survive to settle on the seafloor.

"Clearly, we need to better understand these linkages to know whether larval food supply could be a limiting factor in recruitment of Gulf of Maine lobster and the implications of these trends for the future of the fishery," he said

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