Impacts of Climate Change on Southern New England Lobster Fisheries

Victoria Bouffard, Pre-Veterinary Science

Matt Sullivan, Horticulture

James Sullivan, Fisheries

Southern New England fisherman are still catching lobsters, but not in the way they want to be. They are not being caught in traps or nets, but in the stomachs of their predators. Bart Mansi, a lobster fisherman from Long Island Sound, hears from the local bass fisherman about the baby lobsters they find eaten by their catch. Some of the sea bass they pull in have over 10 baby lobsters in their stomachs. This not an uncommon occurrence,  multiple factors are involved with the scarcity of lobsters in southern New England, and increased predation is just the icing on the cake (Skahill & Mack, 2017). The southern New england lobster population has declined dramatically in the past few decades, while catches in Maine have soared. Harvests in Northern regions like the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank have seen an increase from 14,600 mt (metric tons) in 1990 to 33,000+ mt in 2009, and from 1,300 mt in 1982 to 2,400 mt in 2007, respectively. While the southern New England region landings in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and the New York border of Long Island Sound, declined from a peak of 10,000 mt from 1997 to 1999, to a low of less than 3,000 mt from 2003 to 2007 (Howell 2012). This dramatic shift in lobster settlement is due to a combination of factors, the most pressing being climate change. The Atlantic Ocean has increased by 0.23℃ every decade from 1982 to 2006, with temperatures varying by region (Pinsky & Fogarty, 2012). As the ocean temperatures rise, the more southern regions of New England are crossing a temperature threshold in which the water is no longer hospitable to lobsters, causing them to migrate North.

In addition, increased water temperatures are causing higher incidences of shell disease in the remaining lobsters. One study confirmed the causative relationship between increased temperatures and disease prevalence, and found that of the lobsters observed, the greatest percentage of shell disease was at 15℃ with 35.52% of the lobsters infected, compared to 28.23% infected at 10℃ (Tlusty & Metzler, 2012). Not only are the remaining lobsters in Southern New England suffering from disease, but the warmer waters have compromised their reproductive capacity and development. Lobsters are ectothermic, meaning they rely on external sources for body heat, and are therefore very sensitive to temperature. The increased temperatures are causing them to mature at smaller sizes than normal. It was found that lobsters in their larval state developed 100% slower in 22℃ water, compared to a 47% slower than normal growth rate at 14℃ (Quinn et al., 2013). Another study found that for every 1℃ increase in water temperature, the shell length of developing lobsters (about 50% mature) decreased by 2.8mm. Smaller lobsters are not as reproductively sound which contributes to the population decline as well (Bris, Pershing, Gaudette, Pugh, & Reardon, 2017). These rising temperatures have affected lobsters in some of their earliest stages making life difficult right off the bat.

The state of the southern New England lobster fisheries is on a steep decline. The problem is obvious, climate change has moved lobsters northward, and left the remaining southern population underdeveloped and disease ridden. The solution however, is not as simple. Ocean temperatures are projected to continue rising regardless of efforts to decrease carbon emissions. Under stricter regulations, bottom ocean temperatures along the atlantic coast are still expected to rise by 0-1.5℃ by 2050, and 0-1.9℃ by the end of the century. Even worse, the bottom temperatures are projected to rise 1.2-2.4℃ by 2050, and 2.3-4.3℃ by the year 2100 if there are no implemented efforts to reduce emissions (Bris et al., 2017). Climate change is a very complex issue affecting humans and other living beings in a monumental number of ways. There is also the added complication of controversial and opposing views on climate change both at the public and government level, which threaten the future of environmental conservation. The proposed $2.5 billion, 23% budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency for example, would only further complicate the battle against climate change if it is passed and implemented in 2019 (Dennis, 2018). When it comes to the issue of lobster fisheries in New England, climate change is too large and powerful of an obstacle to effectively fight. As temperatures rise, the lobster population will continue to move North, leaving the lobster fisherman of southern New England with barren traps. In an effort to pursue other solutions the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission proposed new fishing restrictions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. These included changing the legal harvesting size, reducing the number of traps allowed per fisherman, and closing off harvest areas. These strategies were met with resistance from board members who feared that the regulations wouldn’t help the population recover. The proposal was shut down, and while the board claimed they would continue their search for a solution, nothing has been done yet (Whittle, 2017). Fisherman are also hesitant to agree to new regulations. Mansi thinks that new regulations would only serve to hurt the remaining lobsterman, and other fisherman agree (Skahill & Mack, 2017). As rising temperatures continue to decrease the population with no concrete recovery effort in place, the focus of a solution shifts from the lobsters themselves to the fisherman facing unemployment under an impending fishery collapse. There is little hope for a recovery of the lobster population, but that does not mean the fisherman are doomed as well. To lessen the impact of the projected collapse of lobster fisheries in southern New England, fisherman should look to fish other species like striped and black sea bass, and subsidies provided by the United States government should be re-appropriated to support sustainable fishing and aid fisherman in their transition to different livelihoods.

While increasing ocean temperatures have driven lobster out of southern New England, warm water species are making an appearance in the area. The rise of ocean temperatures has impacted all marine species whether due to temperature sensitivity or the drive to find prey. As prey species like lobster shift northward, predators also shift to follow their food source (Overton, 2018). A study published by ICES Journal of Marine Science the while found mainly off the southern Atlantic coast, striped and black sea bass populations have been increasing in New England waters . Striped bass commercial harvest has increased in Massachusetts each decade, from 160,600 lbs in 1990, to 779,700 lbs in 2000, and reaching 1,224,400 lbs in 2010 (Nelson, 2016). Since 2007 black sea bass have been experiencing improved recruitment and a decline in fish mortality, their spawning stock biomass (SSB) has been increasing (“Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission,” n.d.).The total weight of all the individuals in a population that are capable of reproducing make up the SSB (Cooper, 2015). Shifting the basis of lobster fisheries to species like striped bass and black sea bass has the potential to save fisherman from unemployment following the impending collapse of the lobster fishery. The Atlantic striped bass population is currently above target levels, and federal regulations including The Atlantic Striped bass Conservation Act and the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act are in place ensure that harvesting is done responsibly and sustainably (Fisheries NOAA, 2017). Not only are these species readily available, but they are protected in a way that lobsters aren’t. Close monitoring and conservation regulations will help to prevent their populations from plummeting like the lobsters. Black sea bass are a desirable species, sought out by both commercial and recreational fisherman. Like striped bass, the species is also protected under United States federal regulations to enforce sustainable management and harvest and the population is also currently above target levels (NOAA). With abundant populations and migration to southern New England waters, striped bass and black sea bass are viable alternative harvests for current lobster fisherman.

A shifting of species for an entire fishing industry may seem daunting, or even undoable. However, this would not be the first time that an entire community of workers had to adapt to changes in their livelihood due to forces beyond their control. Similar to the dying lobster fishery the coal industry has also almost collapsed as well. In the last three years, more than 8,000 coal miners have been laid off in Kentucky (CRITCHIE, 2017). Luckily though the government has some programs to help out coal miner in these tough times. Programs like Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME) were started by the Department of Labor (DOL) and have a total of 22.5 million in funds and have assisted 3,218 laid off coal miners find new jobs (CRITCHIE, 2017). Programs like HOME give coal miners new job training in the trades like carpenter, electrician and plumber and more. They also offer job training through Teleworks USA they give you the skills to be able to work from home. For people living in rural areas they can now work at home and not have to relocate. If we could create similar programs like HOME it would help the struggling lobster fishermen. It would make the task of switching over from lobster fishing to fishing black and striped sea bass a little less daunting of a task. They wouldn’t feel like their all alone in switching to a new industry.

Programs like these need to be offered to fishermen to go them more of an incentive to switch fishing industries. Instead of teaching them a new trade the program could help lobster fishermen shift over to a new species to fish. The Department of Labor (DOL) has programs that train people who are going to be laid off, or are already laid off through the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) (Critchie, 2017). These programs are good, but they give training for everyone who has or could be laid off. They are no specific programs out there for lobster fishermen. By helping them shift over to a new species they can keep some of their tradition as fishermen. A lot families have long line of fishermen, if we can keep them fishing they can hold onto that part of their culture and lifestyle that many people cherish. If we just teach them a new trade them we lose part of that culture and history.

However, shifting species requires changing fishing techniques, equipment and strategies and additional training, which can be costly to individual fishermen. On average it cost about $161.78 for each fisherman per trip on a commercial striped bass fishing boat. These costs include fuel, food, transportation, ice for the fish, bait, and other fees. Other fees including reels, rods, and other technology total to an annual sum of $384.57 per fisherman (Lipton & Hicks, 2003). The cost of an average lobster trap is $80, this is substantially more expensive than striped bass fishing. The cost of a commercial lobster boat usually costs $200,000; each boat can have up to 800 traps, this means the cost just for traps is $64,000 (“Lobster Industry Facts,” n.d.). The success of a fishery shift on this scale will require assistance from the government. Luckily, there is already a significant amount of government funding given to aquaculture annually and these funds can be shifted to support southern New England lobster fisherman. In 2005 Congress approved a proposal for $3 million to be put towards a research program that would study shell disease in lobsters and their population decline in New England waters (Reed, 2005). For the past 20 years, the government has funded programs that have supported the lobster fisheries. These programs research lobster population, diseases, migration patterns, and much more. Once the southern New England lobster fishery collapses these kinds of government funding can be shifted towards supporting the fisherman’s livelihoods. Commercial fishing gear varies depending on species, lobster gear and bass fishing are very different and expensive. Striped bass fishing and lobster fishing take very different kinds of gear. Bass fishing includes troll nets, rod and reels, different bait, and a different boat than lobster fishing does. Lobster fishing focuses on fishing at the ocean floor with traps, this means that the gear used in lobster fishing cannot be used for bass fishing. For fisherman to still make a living off fishing after the lobster fishery collapses the government funding that is currently used to support the lobsters can be shifted to supporting the fisherman’s transition from lobsters to bass. The funding will be put towards new gear for fisherman and help with a smooth transition from lobster fisheries to bass fisheries. The money that is used to fund lobster programs can be shifted once the commercial lobster industry collapses, that money can be put towards helping fisherman buying new gear for bass.

The importance of government action in the transitioning of fisherman away from lobster fishing is paramount. Fishing a different species requires different equipment and possible training, which will cost money. The transition for these fisherman is not one that they should do alone, but more than that, it is something that they cannot do alone. The impending collapse of southern New England lobster fisheries will not be the first instance of a fishery shutdown, and it likely won’t be the last. However, much can be learned from looking at the collapse of the Canadian cod fishing industry in the late 20th century. The government shutdown of the fishery was due to a massive decline in the fish population. This resulted from gross overfishing and unsustainable fishing techniques. (Hutchings & Reynolds. 2004: Greenpeace, 2009)  There was a time when fisherman described the shores of the Great Banks of Newfoundland as being so full of cod that they couldn’t row a boat through them. Early in the 20th century, 75-80% of the cod caught in Canada came from the area (“Collapse of’). The fisheries stretching from southeastern Labrador to the northern half of the Grand Banks harvested 75-80% of the cod caught in Canada, and were a dominant contributor to the economy of Newfoundland for nearly 500 years, but that changed dramatically in late 20th century (Hirsch, 2002). After peaking with a catch of 800,000 tons in 1968, the annual harvest plummeted 60% by 1975. In 1992, John Crosbie, the fisheries minister at the time, implemented a 2-year moratorium, or a typically temporary prohibition of a certain activity, on cod fishing. This moratorium however, was extended indefinitely. The shutdown left 40,000 people from 5 different Canadian provinces without jobs. As a result of the fishing ban, the community suffered greatly. However, this does not have to be the case for the lobster fisherman of southern New England. The fisheries are not closed yet, there is time to implement precautionary measures to protect fisherman. As the cod population declined in Canada, the government feared that interference, such as imposing a quota, would lead to unwanted job losses. In the end, it was their passive reaction to the situation that contributed to communal devastation when the fishery was ultimately shut down (Greenpeace, 2009).

The cod fishery has not yet recovered in Canada, and the community of Newfoundland had to undergo major industrial, environmental, social and economic changes in order to recover. This included adapting to the available species in the area. Some former cod fisherman are now fishing invertebrate species like snow crab and shrimp that have shifted to the area in response to ocean temperature changes. However, this was not an industry-wide shift, and many members of thee fishing community still struggled. In 1996, the unemployment rate in Newfoundland was between 34-37%, which was 3 times greater than the national average (Hamilton & Butler 2001). Lack of government action as both  precautionary measures and recovery efforts following the collapse lead to significant community damage. This could have been avoided or the impact lessened if something was done before the government was left with no other choice then to abruptly shut down the fishery. There is much to learn from the lack of precautionary measures taken in response to the decline of this fishery, which provides proof that a lack of government action leads to avoidable hardships within the community.

The looming threat of an industry collapse is putting pressure on fisheries everywhere, not just in southern New England. Right now Maine is experiencing some record high lobster catches 130 million pounds in 2016 with an estimated value of $533 million dollars (Overton, 2017). Unfortunately, this population boom is not expected to last, Maine is projected to follow the same pattern as the southern states like Connecticut and Rhode Island (NOAA). Climate change is still an ongoing problem that won’t go away overnight. Were all going to have to adapt to our changing environment in order to survive. For the fishermen in Connecticut and Rhode Island they have to adapt much quicker than some others. Climate change has deeply affected the lobster industry, possibly to the point where it seems irreversible. Areas like Connecticut and Rhode Island have been robbed of their once profitable resource. We are all to blame for this problem, so we all must do something to help. We are all invested in this problem and we all need to work together. Rhode Island lobster fishermen have faced a tremendous hit in their industry. Losing more than half of the people that make up the Rhode Island lobster industry from 1600 to 726 (Whittle. 2015). One lobster fishermen remembers hauling in 2,000lbs of lobster a day during the 1990s but that number dropped to a 100lbs a day when he quit over a decade ago (Whittle, 2015). We have no choice but to start exploring new fishing industries like the black sea bass and striped sea bass. If we wait we will only make things worse for us and future generations. This doesn’t mean the actual lobster population is disappearing. In fact, populations are relatively steady; it’s the location that’s changed. While southern New England lobstermen have found increasingly empty traps since the mid-90s, Maine’s lobster fishery has boomed. From 1994 to 2014, Maine’s landings surged 219% to more than 124 million pounds. This is a result of rising ocean temperatures that have driven lobsters out of Connecticut and Rhode Island shores and into Maine. Now that the lobsters have gone to Maine it’s time for the Connecticut lobster fishermen to make a switch to striped and black sea bass. If they make the switch they can save their fishing lifestyle and carry on their tradition and culture of living off the sea. While also still being able to make an honest living and being able to do what they love out on the water.

References

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Evan

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