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January 23, 2018

Maine lobster population could be at 'tipping point' in Gulf of Maine

Courtesy / Tom Thai, Flickr A new study warns that Maine's lobster fishery is likely to be adversely affected by future warming in the Gulf of Maine, making the industry's conservation measures all the more important to maintain a sustainable fishery.

A new study, led by scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and colleagues at the University of Maine and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that industry conservation of the lobster resource could be key to mitigating impacts of future warming in the Gulf of Maine that will make the lobster population less resilient.

According to a GMRI press release, Maine lobstermen for generations have returned large lobsters to the sea and marked and returned egg-bearing lobsters, conservation techniques that have contributed to record landings and sustainability in the Gulf of Maine fishery.

At the same time, warming ocean temperatures have caused the Gulf of Maine lobster population to boom, by an estimated 515% over the 30-year period from 1984-2014.

But for the southern New England fishery, where the water was already warmer than the Gulf of Maine, increasing temperature changes were disastrous for the lobster resource. Challenges associated with warmer temperatures to the south include decreased survival of larval lobsters, increased incidence of shell disease and increased predation.

In addition, the region’s lack of protections on larger reproductive lobsters made the population less resilient to warmer waters.

Now the Gulf of Maine will likely reach a similar tipping point, as its waters continue to warm, the study says. The researchers’ population projections suggest that lobsters’ productivity will decrease as temperatures continue to warm.

But the researchers also stated that continued conservation efforts can mitigate the impacts of future warming. While scientists expect lobster populations to decline from recent highs, the 30-year outlook for the Gulf of Maine fishery looks positive if conservation practices continue, according to the study.

American lobster is the most valuable fishery in both the U.S. and Canada, with a combined landed value of more than $1.5 billion in 2016.

Maine lobstermen had a record catch in 2016 of nearly 131 million pounds, but preliminary estimates for 2017 suggest that last year’s haul will be considerably less.

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