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June 9, 2017

Warming oceans put lobster industry in the hot pot

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Bob Steneck, professor at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center, told a lobstermen-and-scientist conference in Portland that fisheries management needs to be reinvented to include fishermen as the oceans warm.

Scientists and lobstermen meeting in Portland this week agreed they need to share information and be more proactive about the changes coming with warming oceans.

"There was an adversarial role between scientists and fishermen in the past," Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, told the 200 attendees at the 11th International Conference and Workshop in Portland from June 4-9.

He added that state biologists in the 1980s told lobstermen that the lobster industry was crashing because of warming water temperatures. But then he met Bob Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center. Steneck and his students dove to the bottom of known lobster areas and saw tons of lobsters, Cousens said.

"He told me 'You're going to be OK,'" Cousens added. "It was the beginning of good sea sampling [by fishermen working with] scientists."

Some companies, like Ready Seafood, have their own staff marine biologists. Ready has Curt Brown to help it look at the best way to maximize its products in world markets, said Brendan Ready, co-owner of Ready Seafood, which sells live lobsters, and Maine Seafood Ventures, its frozen lobster distribution operation in Scarborough.

"We need to balance the economic side with science," he said. "We need more private businesses like ourselves to look at the long-term strategy of the lobster industry." He said typically lobstermen are so busy they can only focus on day-to-day activities.

Warming waters, retreating lobsters?

The Gulf of Maine is warming 99% faster than other world salt water bodies, according to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration data. That's bad news for lobsters, which are moving from west to east and north to their preferred cooler waters.

Some 80% of the value of Maine fisheries is lobsters, with 4,500 active licenses in operation along the coast of Maine, according to Carl Wilson, director of the bureau of marine science at Maine's Department of Marine Resources. He said that with changes in both species and water conditions, "we need to be proactive in terms of what changes are coming."

Cousens said global warming really hit home with lobstermen in 2012, which he called "the year that everything went to hell," in terms of 120 million pounds of lobster caught, much higher than the 80 million pounds in the 1970s and 1980s, and prices fell to $2.40 per pound. "People almost went bankrupt," he said, adding that he pulled in 20 pounds of shedders, or soft shell lobsters, on June 6, and he typically doesn't see them until July 17-19. The warmer waters have created a year-round fishery for shedders, he added.

"I'm not going to get political, but what's going on in Washington is [bull]. You [politicians] have to do what's right for the industry and not for your party," Cousens said. "If the lobster resource goes down you need to replace it with something. Aquaculture is only one thing for diversity."

Steneck added that, "at the end of the day we are talking about sustainability, staying afloat in a complex world … sustaining Maine's maritime heritage falls squarely on the lobster. If anything happens to the lobster, there's no safety net.

"Is this a socio-economic time bomb like the housing crisis?" he asked. "Is the sweet spot for lobsters leaving Maine and heading north?"

Steneck raised the possibility of active coastal fisheries collapsing and rich people moving into the coast of Maine.

"Small fisheries towns can't be restored," he said, adding that fisheries management needs to be reinvented to include fishermen as the oceans warm. He referred to the issue as "the gilded trap," meaning the value of lobster is high but so is the risk of fishing it as a monoculture.

"We need to work hard to diversify [fisheries], for example, red hake are moving north and some lobstermen have reported seeing black sea bass along the coast of Maine," Steneck said. "The DMR is monitoring this. And more species are coming. Maine's maritime heritage depends on the sustainability of its marine resources."

Editor's note: For a YouTube video showing lobstering in the Gulf of Maine, courtesy of Ready Seafood, go here.

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