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The Lobster Bubble: Maine’s Lobster Boom, And Why Experts Predict A Dramatic Bust

By Joanna M. Foster on August 4, 2013 at 9:33 am

"The Lobster Bubble: Maine’s Lobster Boom, And Why Experts Predict A Dramatic Bust"

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A lobsterman tends his traps from a fishing vessel off the coast of Cundy's Harbor, Maine, on Tuesday, July 19, 2011. (Credit: AP)

When Adam Campbell first moved to North Haven in Penobscot Bay, Maine, in his early twenties, he was told that if he ever saw more than three cars in a driveway, it was a party and he should invite himself over.

North Haven is one of Maine’s fourteen islands that is only connected to the mainland by fair-weather ferries. There are only about 350 people who call the island home year round, so even as an outsider who had just moved to Maine to paint boats in the hopes of getting on some, Campbell was warmly welcomed as a fresh source of stories and jokes. Now, he is the proud owner of a thirty-foot lobster boat and one of about 5,500 lobstermen in Maine. Last year these men hauled in a lobster catch worth well over three hundred and fifty million dollars.

Lobsters make up 80 percent of the value of Maine’s fisheries. The idyllic postcard scene of lobster boats bobbing in a harbor isn’t staged for the enjoyment of summer tourists; it’s a working waterfront that is the lifeblood of entire communities that have called Maine home since colonial days.

Many years ago, there were magnificent ground fisheries in the Gulf of Maine, teeming with cod, haddock, pollock and hake. These popular species were essentially fished to the point of local extinction, though, and, released from the pressure of predators, lobsters started taking over. Now, lobsters have become something of a monoculture which supports not only the fishermen, but also the boat builders, mechanics, bait sellers and tourists industry.

“For decades, the lobster catches in the Gulf of Maine were very steady at about 20 million pounds per year,” said Robin Alden, Executive Director of Penobscot East Resource Center. “Then they jumped to 40 million pounds per year and last year we landed a record 125 million pounds of lobsters. In Stonington, where I work, we landed 20 million pounds. The catch just about outweighed the population on this island.”

While experts agree that the summer of 2012 was something of an anomaly with freakishly warm water, two to three degrees above average, it may also be a foretaste of what warming waters in the Gulf of Maine will bring in future years. Record-breaking lobster catches may sound like one of those few happy side effects of a warming planet, but as with most such cases, the story of the lobster is not that simple.

A lobster with shell disease (Credit: deepseanews.com)

In 1999, lobstering in Long Island Sound collapsed without warning. It was a record-breaking hot year, and the unusually warm water temperatures seemed to unleash a hitherto rare infection. Shell disease, a bacterial infection that up to that point had only been observed commonly in the infrequently-molting older lobsters, claimed 80 percent of the lobster stock off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut. More than a decade later, the lobster fisheries still haven’t recovered and the water temperature has passed the threshold that these otherwise-hardy crustaceans can endure. Average water temperatures are now routinely at that record-breaking 1999 level.

“Anything above 20º C is extremely stressful for lobsters,” explained Bob Steneck, Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. “While warmer waters off the coast of Maine in recent years have probably aided the boom in lobster numbers, putting us right in the temperature sweet spot for this species, we’re getting closer and closer to that point where the temperature is just too stressful for them, their immune system is compromised and it’s all over.”

If this leads to a crash in the Maine lobster industry, experts agree it would almost inevitably lead to irreversible gentrification of Maine’s coast. While the going has been good, lobstermen have invested in bigger boats and more equipment to take advantage of the record lobster numbers. Much of this gear is owned by the bank. It’s a bit like the housing bubble, and if the lobsters go, lobstermen won’t be able to make their payments and the bank will have a glut of lobster boats.

Lobsters are unloaded from a fishing boat in Portland, Maine (Credit: AP)

“We are one of the only places on the east coast that still has a working waterfront,” said Steneck. “Names on mailboxes don’t change around here. Maine’s fishing culture isn’t just part of the state’s history, it’s American history. Many of these fishing villages were here before the colony at Plymouth. But once the waterfront is lost to condos, it doesn’t come back.”

Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have increased by about 0.026ºC each year since 1982. Recently, however — since 2004 — the pace of warming has picked up substantially, to about 0.26ºC per year.

Professor Steneck has, over the course of his career, seen the movement of lobsters northward as warmer waters creep up the coast.

“Back in 1980, when I was still working on my PhD, the biggest landings of lobster were in Casco Bay,” said Steneck. “Then the best landings were in Lincoln County and then there was a dramatic increase up in Knox County. Now, the biggest landings of lobsters are up in Stonington, in Hancock County. When I was getting started, Stonington was barely on the map for lobsters. The lobster temperature sweet spot is moving north and east.”

“Hancock and Washington Counties, the northernmost counties in Maine, are ninety-percent dependent on lobstering,” said Alden. “Just how precarious these communities are is quite sobering. I don’t want to think what Maine would be like without lobsters, families who had lived here for generations would have to move away. There just isn’t anything to do up there besides fish and there isn’t much to fish besides lobster.”

Andrew Pershing, Associate Research Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, doesn’t think that average temperatures in the Gulf of Maine will cross the 20ºC threshold anytime soon. But as he explained, they don’t have to in order for havoc to break out.

“We know that climate change will lead to more extreme weather,” said Pershing. “All it would take to destroy this fishery is one really hot year leading to an outbreak of shell disease. Lobsters could be gone long before the ocean is consistently much warmer.”

The irony of the situation in Maine, is that the lobster fishery is one of the best managed fisheries in the country. Because the communities are so dependent on the resource and by law all lobstermen are owner/operators in Maine, everyone out on the water abides by laws prohibiting the capture of egg-bearing females, large breeding lobsters and small juveniles. If not for climate change, the lobster fishery could be extremely sustainable, a shining success story of a well-managed fishery.

Various experiments to raise lobsters via aquaculture have been attempted in recent years, with very limited success. Sebastian Belle, of the Maine Aquaculture Association explained that the practice is almost prohibitively expensive and doesn’t solve the problem of a warming ocean.

“Lobsters have a very complex life cycle, especially during their larval stage,” said Belle. “They require live feed for much of their development, which gets really pricey, really quickly. They are also a highly cannibalistic species, so they have to be physically separated from one another, which also adds greatly to the expense and complexity.”

Belle doesn’t believe that aquaculture will save Maine’s lobsters. There is the potential that if something catastrophic happened one year, aquaculture could be used to restock the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine, but this would only be a temporary band-aid solution, not a long-term strategy for a sustainable fishery.

Penobscot Bay, Maine (Credit: AP)

Aquaculture may, however, turn out to play an important role in helping preserve the cultural fabric of Maine. Belle has seen increasing numbers of people trying to diversify into oyster and mussel aquaculture operations. Oftentimes, he says, they are the sons and daughters of lobstermen.

“Last year, the average age of an aquaculture lease-holder was 36, while the average age of a lobster permit holder was something like 52,” said Belle. “I know a lot of families who want to keep living on the water, but know that how they do that has to change.”

Adam Campbell and his sons on North Haven are hard at work creating just such an alternative waterfront livelihood for their family. While Campbell still goes out lobstering he has also started his own oyster farm in North Haven which he now estimates makes up about sixty percent of his income.

“It takes about four years to get anything from a new oyster farm,” said Campbell. “When I was getting started, I was out on the lobster boat all day and in the bay with a headlamp all night getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I know that growing oysters will never earn me the kind of status that bringing in a boat load of lobsters will around here, but I know that lobstering won’t be this good forever, and this island is my home where I met my wife and raised my kids. I’m not going to be pushed out.”

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