Scientists in Maine are competing for a share of $11 million of NASA grant money in hopes of creating a real-time lobster distribution monitoring system. The proposed project is a joint collaboration between the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science.
For years, fishery managers have had to rely on historical catch data to plan for the upcoming season. But thanks to climate change, conditions in the Gulf of Maine are diverging from past patterns. Over the past decade the pace of the warming in the Gulf has increased ten-fold, from 0.026ºC each year to 0.26ºC per year. For now, that means that the lobster catch is exploding, but it could also be a signal of trouble to come. Even in good years, a sudden boom in lobster numbers, if not well managed, can be devastating for the fishermen who end up with such a glut of lobsters that prices plummet.
“We’re encountering conditions that really we’ve never seen before,” Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute told the Morning Sentinel.
Lobster landings in the Gulf of Maine have hit record highs in recent years, but scientists warn that this may be the boom before the bust. While current warmer water temperatures have put the fishery right at the temperature sweet spot for lobsters, anything above 20º C is extremely stressful for lobsters and can cause a deadly outbreak of shell disease. In 1999, lobstering in Long Island Sound collapsed without warning after a record-breaking hot year unleashed a shell disease epidemic.
The researchers want to use satellite data and observations from fishermen and researchers to create an online map showing where and when lobsters and other key marine species can be found.
Lobsters make up 80 percent of the value of Maine’s fisheries, and support not only the fishermen, but also the boat builders, mechanics, bait sellers and local tourist industry. The economies of the northernmost counties in Maine are 90 percent dependent on lobstering.
The Maine mapping project has applied for $750,000 over three years from NASA. The final price tag is expected to be around $1 million.