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April 1, 2020

Warming Gulf of Maine waters may be stunting lobster growth

File photo / Laurie Schreiber Researchers received new funds to study the effects of climate change on lobster growth.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. And the trend may be having an impact on Maine's most valuable commercial fishery, if temperature affects lobster larvae and their success in growing to adulthood, scientists say.

The University of New England in Biddeford, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Hood College in Frederick, Md., have received an $860,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study that impact.

“We’ll be studying how temperature influences how larvae settle, where they settle and how successfully they settle,” Markus Frederich, a UNE marine science professor helping to lead the project, said in a news release Tuesday. “The findings of this project will help us make more specific predictions of how many lobsters there will be in the Gulf of Maine in the future.”

Maine's lobster catch was valued at $485.4 million last year, when Maine lobster harvesters landed 100.7 million pounds. It was a 17% decline compared with 2018, but landings still topped the 100-million-pound mark for the ninth year in a row.

Temperature is critical

Before lobsters reach maturity, they start as larvae. They float in the water and then settle and grow into adults.

Temperature is a critical factor controlling the distribution of marine organisms. As waters warm, adult lobsters move towards colder waters. However, most research on thermal tolerance has focused on adults, not larvae. 

“There is very little research available on the impact of warming oceans on the development of those larvae,” said Frederich.

Research conducted by the team will help advance the understanding of shifting species distributions in response to increasing ocean temperatures, explore thermal sensitivity in wild-caught larvae for the first time, and improve understanding of the potential impact of climate change on the lobster fishery, which is the most valuable commercial fishery in North America. 

The project will support training of undergraduate interns and master’s degree students, with a team of scientists that are experts in lobster biology, stress physiology and modeling.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our faculty and our students to study the effects of climate change in the Gulf of Maine on our state’s most iconic animal,” Charles Tilburg, director of UNE’s School of Marine Programs, said in the release. “Markus and his colleagues’ work will bring much needed light to this important topic and provide our students with new experiences as they learn cutting-edge techniques.”

The project brings together two undergraduate colleges, a research institution, and a state agency. 

“We’ll combine field work and lab work,” said Frederich. “All of the stages will involve students, giving them hands-on research that could have an impact on an industry and the people involved in it. This is a spectacular science experiment experience for them.”

The grant will fund the study for three years. UNE’s share will be $310,000.

In 2019, two new studies published by University of Maine scientists point to the role of a warming ocean and local oceanographic differences in the rise and fall of lobster populations along the coast from southern New England to Atlantic Canada.


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