There are two stories in New England currently: one of success and one of failure. The lobster fishing industry is without question one of the most significant parts of the New England identity and culture. Lobster fishing has provided a lucrative livelihood since the 1800s and continues to do so for those fishing in Northern New England. While those fishing for lobster in the North are hauling record numbers, the industry in the South has been heading toward the verge of collapse since the late 1990s. Tom Tomkiewicz, a Massachusetts lobsterman who fishes in Long Island Sound describes it himself, saying “there is nothing here… it’s crazy” (Abel, 2017). How can one of the biggest industries of a region suddenly be at massively different levels of success? The answer lies in the rising temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean and historic management practices that have lead to this disparity.
Lobster represents the most valuable commercial fishery in North America, with a combined landed value of more than $1.5 billion in 2016 (Gulf of Maine Research Institute, 2018). New England alone accounted for $666.2 million of those landings, over 44% of the catch (Commercial Fisheries, 2018). Along the Southern New England coast, which includes Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Long Island Sound, and Connecticut, lobster fishing has been an economic staple since the 1820s (Lobstering History, 2012). However, over the past two decades American lobster, Homarus americanus, have shifted northward in their geographic distribution (Pershing, Lawton, Meyers, & Wahle, 2012) and brought sudden change to the industry. This shift in location has led to a flourishing lobster fishery in the Gulf of Maine and Canada, while the industry is vanishing from Southern New England (Pershing et al., 2012, pg. 349). The lobsters’ movement has largely been blamed on climate change and the rising ocean temperatures associated with it (Hale, Buffum, Kiddon, & Hughes, 2017; Le Bris, Pershing, Gaudette, Pugh, & Reardon, 2017; Wahle, Dellinger, Olszewski, & Jekielek, 2015). These increased temperatures have negative impacts on both the lobsters’ physiology and their reproductive success (Hale et al., 2017; Jury & Watson, 2015; Le Bris et al., 2017; Pershing et al., 2012; Rheuban, Kavanaugh, & Doney, 2017), and avoiding those temperatures means travelling north (Hale et al., 2017; Nye, Link, Hare, & Overholtz, 2009; Pershing et al., 2012; Pinsky & Fogarty, 2012; Tanaka & Chen, 2015; Wahle et al., 2015). After reviewing the available literature, news, and testimonials published mainly in the last decade, we have determined that the best next move for lobstermen, lobsters, and lobster consumers throughout New England is to sustainably manage the fisheries north and offshore of southern New England, where the water is cooler.
In order to understand the severity of the impact that increased temperatures have on lobster physiology, it is important to first understand how the lobster life cycle works. Starting with the egg stage, eggs are released from the female 9-12 months post-fertilization and hatch. In this period of time known as the larval stage, they float near the surface of the water and are considerably vulnerable for about 4-6 weeks, molting on average four times in the process (Barclay, 2017). Molting is the shedding of hard shell to allow for body growth; the lobster regrows its shell over the following weeks, and often even eats the old shell for its calcium. In the post-larval stage, lobsters that have survived up to this point (an estimated 1 in 1,000) settle to the seafloor and find shelter, continuing to eat and molt as they grow (University of Maine Lobster Institute, n.d.). Post-larval stage lobsters mature into juveniles around five years of age, and will have usually molted about 25 times in the first 7 years of their lives before they reach adulthood, when they will molt every 1-2 years (University of Maine Lobster Institute, n.d.). Due to the sheer number of times it will molt in its 100 year lifetime, the lobster is in constant need of energy and shelter as it allows itself to be vulnerable to threats such as disease and predation (University of Maine Lobster Institute, n.d.).
The American lobster population of the eastern United States has been hit with increasing ocean temperatures, a consequence of climate change. In Narragansett Bay, water temperatures have been increased by 0.09°C per year since 1990, leading to a total increase of 2.52°C in surface temperatures (Wahle et al., 2015). From 1982 to 2013, daily satellite-derived SSTs in the Gulf of Maine rose at a rate of 0.03°C per year. This rate is higher than the global mean rate of 0.01°C per year. Beginning in 2004, the warming rate in the Gulf of Maine increased by a factor of ~7, to 0.23°C per year. The Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99.9% of the global ocean between 2004 and 2013 (Pershing et al., 2015). Typically most adult lobsters are found in water 5-18°C, and this is becoming increasingly difficult to find in the southern reaches of the lobsters’ range (Rheuban et al., 2017).
The lobster population’s growth rate is impacted, as warmer temperatures lead to a higher metabolism (Jury & Watson, 2017; Waller, Wahle, McVeigh, & Fields, 2017). These rising temperatures make lobsters more active, meaning they need more food to sustain them. Lobsters raised in 19°C water consumed food at a 40% higher rate than larvae raised in 16°C water (Waller et al., 2017, pg 1214). Another study found that every 10°C (18°F) increase in water temperature led to a doubling in lobsters’ food consumption rates (Jury & Watson, 2017, pg. 1654). As a result, rising ocean temperatures have caused lobsters to mature at smaller sizes, while needing significantly more food. Since lab scenarios have seen growth impacts due to increasing temperatures, similar effects would happen to the wild populations of lobster that have to deal with rising ocean temperatures.
Water loses oxygen content as it warms, compounding the problem of higher energetic demands placed on lobsters (Waller et al., 2017). While they increase their oxygen demands as they grow, the amount of oxygen lobsters need is also significantly higher for larvae raised in warmer temperatures (Waller et al., 2017). The oxygen consumption demand for larvae was nearly three times higher for those raised in 19°C than it was for larvae raised in 16°C (Waller et al., 2017, pg. 1214). The oxygen demand for older larvae raised in 19°C water was 25% higher than that of colder water larvae (Waller et al., 2017, pg. 1214). Metabolic rate is a measurement of how quickly energy is processed by an organism, and oxygen is needed to carry away toxic byproducts of metabolic reactions. Recall that lobsters experience a metabolic increase in warmer water and therefore require more oxygen, yet the water contains less as it heats up. Imagine mountaineers near the summit of Mount Everest: they work very hard to ascend sheer snowy faces with a load of gear, but without oxygen tanks they are breathing thinner air. For lobsters, the mountain gets continuously steeper and snowier with altitude.
The increase in temperature has led to changes in lobster growth, such as how large their carapaces are when they reach sexual maturity (Le Bris et al., 2017; Waller et al., 2017). A 1°C increase in ocean temperatures led to a 2.8 mm decrease in size of larvae that are half-way through reproductive maturity (Le Bris et al., 2017, pg. 402). Any temperature increase led to a smaller maturity size, meaning smaller mature lobsters. American lobster larvae raised in 16°C water had an average shell length longer than their 19°C counterparts, suggesting that temperature does impact the size of lobsters (Waller et al., 2017, pg. 1213). Lobsters harvested by U.S. fishermen are regulated by a minimum and maximum size limits based on carapace length (How to Measure a Lobster, 2017). These decreases in size could impact the maturity and age the lobsters caught by fishermen, due to lobsters’ carapaces shrinking with rising ocean temperatures.
The rising temperatures also impact the size at which sexual maturity occurs in lobsters. Smaller shell lengths could potentially impact the fecundity of females, the amount of eggs produced by a female, as size often determines clutch size (Le Bris et al., 2017). Even if females are successfully reproducing, larvae survival rates are significantly lower in warmer temperatures (Waller et al., 2017). The survival rate of larvae raised in 19°C water was lower than larvae raised in 16°C water (Waller et al., 2017, pg. 1213).
Additionally, reproductive stresses are caused by warming waters and can explain the diminishing catch in Southern New England (SNE). As previously mentioned, warmer waters increases the metabolism of lobsters because they are more active. This means more time and energy must be alloted for feeding and simply surviving, rather than focusing on reproductive efforts. Lobsters that do reproduce will be impacted by water temperatures above 19°C/66°F (Rheuban et al., 2017). This temperature threshold impacts all ages of lobsters, from larvae to adults (Rheuban et al., 2017; Tanaka & Chen, 2015). Larvae that were raised in colder waters ultimately had heavier and larger proportions than larvae raised in warm water (Waller et al., 2017). Larvae that were raised in colder waters ultimately had heavier and larger proportions than larvae raised in warm water (Waller et al., 2017). Male lobsters fight for the rights to mate and for habitat, and the bigger lobster has a better chance at succeeding (Breithaupt & Atema, 2000). Therefore, smaller lobsters growing in warmer waters could result in less reproductive success, meaning less diversity and overall fitness in the population. Over time this leads to lower diversity in the populations’ genetics, impacting the success of the population.
The combination of physical and reproductive stresses are the major reason for massive declines in the Southern New England population of American lobster, due to rising temperatures from climate change. Lobster populations have declined in Rhode Island and Buzzards Bay due to decreasing survival rates of larvae after settlement (Pershing et al., 2012). Temperature, among climate factors, seems to be the major influence in lobster habitat and success, meaning that rising temperatures have shifted the range of lobsters (Hale et al., 2017; Nye et al., 2009; Pershing et al., 2012; Pinsky & Fogarty, 2012; Tanaka & Chen, 2015; Wahle et al., 2015). In areas that were once booming with lobsters such as Long Island Sound, Rhode Island, and Buzzards Bay, there have been significant decreases in lobsters (Jury & Watson, 2017; Wahle et al., 2015). Between 1960 and 2009, the lobster population migrated northward about 55 kilometers per decade (Pinsky & Fogarty, 2012, pg. 888). This shift has lobster populations moving northward and into deeper waters to avoid rising temperatures (Nye et al., 2009). Lobsters in the Narragansett Bay in RI were found in their highest densities in deep waters in 2009 (Wahle et al., 2015). This migration from higher temperatures was observed in a number of invertebrates, including lobster, where species’ ranges shifted northward a significant amount since 1994 (Hale et al., 2017, pgs. 1749-1750). This northward shift in range to avoid waters above the threshold of 19°C limits the impacts of temperature mediated physiological and reproductive stresses (Jury & Watson, 2017). Although lobsters are migrating northward to avoid rising temperatures, lobstermen’s catch rates of lobsters are sometimes higher in areas with warmer waters (Jury & Watson, 2017). This is likely do to the lobsters’ need to gather more food, not because of a preference for warm waters (Jury & Watson, 2017). The substantial amount of life history impacts caused by warming waters has led to a northward shift in the American lobster fishery, as the species is actively avoiding these costs. This northward shift has been shown in lobsterman catches, as 97% of the catch in 2013 was taken from the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank (Species – american, 2018). As the catches in Northern New England have steadily increased, the catches in SNE have fallen to record lows (Species – american, 2018). Between 1985-2014, stock abundance fell by 78% in SNE (Pershing et al., 2018).
We have established that Southern New England waters are becoming less suitable for lobsters, and that they are migrating to cooler places. This has equated to heavy settlement in northern and offshore waters. With the Southern New England (SNE) industry floundering at its present size, can anything be done to save the livelihoods of SNE lobstermen while keeping the greater New England lobster population intact? In our estimation, restricting lobster permits to the 50% most consistently successful SNE lobstermen and requesting congressional buyouts for the rest seems the wisest option, if a sad one. We advise implementing strict management plans for the remaining lobstermen, inspired by the Maine lobstering community’s successful approach, to keep the fishery productive for as long as ocean temperatures permit. Allowing lobstering in SNE to continue with fewer players limits the amount of regulation necessary for Northern New England, since there will not be an influx of lobstermen applying for permits and venturing there. Finally, industry leaders trapping in the thriving Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank areas should prepare a contingency plan to hatch lobsters in laboratories and limit their trap counts, should the lobster stock begin dropping alarmingly as it did in Southern New England (See Figure 1 on pg. 2 for map).
Northern and offshore waters will likely remain premium lobster habitats in the coming decades, and the species is predicted to stabilize in those locations. Lobsters reside within very specific water temperatures, and in both of Rheuban et al.’s (2017) climate projection models to 2050 and 2100, nearshore SNE experienced fewer days per year of optimal seafloor temperature, and more days above lobsters’ 20°C thermal maximum. However, the Gulf of Maine (GoM), George’s Bank (GBK), and offshore Southern New England (SNE) are expected to spend more time in the ideal range, with only small areas infrequently crossing over 20°C (Rheuban et al. 2017, pg. 9392). Temperature is the most significant climatic factor in lobster habitat suitability (Tanaka & Chen, 2015), and so the temperature models are good indicators that these regions will remain hospitable to lobsters for several decades. In addition, the depletion (by overfishing) of most predatory groundfish species, like cod and haddock, in New England waters during the twentieth century allows lobsters to live largely predator-free (Acheson & Gardner, 2014; Steneck et al., 2011). The temperature range and rarity of predators in northern New England forecasts a productive environment for lobsters to live and reproduce in.
Throughout the years of declining lobsters, there has been a dialogue between those who fish and those who regulate the fishing in regard to how to solve the problem. With the number of SNE permit holders decreasing year by year, one option on the table is a buyout. In essence, a buyout would pay current permit holders to halt their practices and stop trapping for lobsters. Bernie Feeney, a former lobsterman and member of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, supported this idea, saying “harvesters (lobstermen) would be better off taking the buyout, rather than being edged out by the industry” (Tredwell, 2011). The largest benefit of this kind of policy is that the overall number of traps in the water would decrease by a significant margin, without entirely footing the bill to fishermen. The number of participating permit-holders has already decreased by a considerable margin, as there were once over 1300 licensed lobstermen in comparison to the some 800 today (Tredwell, 2011). By offering a buyout, the regulators offer at least some sort of cushion for those struggling and those leaving the industry.
The government has facilitated buyouts before, such as with the Conservation Reserve Program. The program allows farmers to rotate off of agriculturally valuable land in exchange for payments. It ensures that the land restores to an effective growth plot, while also paying for farmers who would otherwise lose crop sales (Conservation Reserve Program, n.d.). A similar bill could be created for lobstermen in New England, for many people’s transition out of the lobstering business. This would also protect the remaining population of lobsters residing in SNE as they adjust to warming oceans. We propose that buying out the less productive 50% of the industry would allow the remaining half to fish the current lobster populations in a more sustainable fashion.
Sustainable management of the Gulf of Maine (GoM) since the early 1900s has been the driver of success in the region. In contrast, the Southern New England (SNE) areas have not implemented the same management practices. “If they had managed the fishery the way Maine did, they would still have a fishery…it would be smaller, but they would still have a fishery for sure” notes Andrew Pershing, citing Massachusetts lack of management as a reason for the industry’s precipitous decline (Bever, 2018; Le Bris et al., 2018, pg. 1831). For example, in Maine the practice of V-notching female lobsters, clipping the tail in an identifiable fashion to mark her for release, has been in practice since as early 1917 for those that are known to be fertile and produce a large amount of eggs. The success and stability of Maine’s lobster fishery has been attributed to this practice, as well as the recent change in temperature. “It’s been about 50% temperature and 50% the management practices we have here in Maine…they really are equal in the model” says Pershing, regarding the success of the Maine fishery (Le Bris et al., 2018, pg. 1831). With this information, we recommend that Southern New England adopt similar if not equal regulations regarding V-notching, as V-notching is voluntary there and less common. If more restrictive conservation measures had been implemented earlier in SNE, the stock abundance would have decreased by only 57% instead of 78% (Le Bris et al., 2018, pg. 1835) . These results suggest that, because of their higher fecundity, preserving large females can dampen the negative effects and amplify the benefits of warming.
A subjective survey of Maine lobster vessel/fleet captains, supported by catch records, indicates that current regulations and lobstermen’s attitudes have contributed to the long-term health of the area’s lobster fishery (Acheson & Gardner, 2014). This indicates that sustainability-oriented practices in New England are effective as long as the lobster population remains stable (Acheson & Gardner, 2014). Adapting mindfully to the course of climatic events, without radical adjustments or restructuring, will be the most rewarding path through this situation.
In order to understand the regulation of lobster trapping, it is important to understand how lobster traps themselves work. Traps are the primary mechanism in which lobsters are commercially fished, in which steel wire traps are lined with bait and set to soak on the ocean floor. Traps consist of two sections, the “kitchen” and the “parlor”. The kitchen refers to the baited section of the trap, while the parlor refers to the area in which adequately sized lobsters remain until hauled by the owner of the trap. Lobsters enter the kitchen through funnel shaped holes which make it difficult for the lobster to escape. When the lobster tries to escape the kitchen, they end up in the parlor. The parlor also is equipped with vents that allow undersized lobsters to escape, and biodegradable release clips in case the trap is forgotten (Romanowsky, n.d.). The parlor vents are one of the most important components of the trap design, and their dimensions are highly regulated to lower the risk of under-size lobsters being trapped and thus prevent overfishing.
In addition to the control of parlor vent size, the current regulations for lobster fishing are also dependent on location and require permits. These regulations are not fishing quotas, rather they are “trap caps”, which limit the number of traps that each vessel is allowed to carry. Each fishing vessel is required to carry less than the maximum allowed traps for that specific area. For example, if a vessel were to fish in the Outer Cape Cod Area, that vessel would have a cap of 800 traps and would not be able to exceed this number. If a permit holder fishes in multiple areas, that vessel must use the lowest maximum of traps. For example, if a permit holder commercially fishes in areas with caps of 800, 1440, and 1945, they would only be allowed to carry 800 traps (Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management, n.d.). These location regulations are applied in areas from Connecticut and Long Island Sound to the Gulf of Maine. These rules are in accordance with a Federal law known as the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management act (Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management, n.d.).
A cooperative group mentality amongst GoM lobstermen and their adherence to trapping regulations has historically benefited the industry. If SNE lobstermen follow that precedent more closely than they typically have (Pershing et al., 2018), the fishery will be more stable and predictable. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, the Maine lobster fishery landings plummeted, before rebounding steadily and then increasing exponentially from the 1990’s-present. One of the primary factors causing the “boom-bust” cycle was a lack of what some researchers call “conservation ethic” (Acheson & Gordon, 2013; Boudreau & Worm, 2010). Lobstermen would keep and sell lobsters smaller than the minimum allowed size, or use them for bait, and scrape the eggs off of gravid (egg-bearing) females in order to keep them. Catches declined concurrently with the Great Depression, and after the economic recovery these illegal practices became the mark of selfishness more than savy profitability and other lobstermen started reporting to a commission if they witnessed illicit techniques. Individual crews acted in the greater fishery’s interest, effectively escaping their prisoner’s dilemma: even before climate change significantly dislocated lobsters to the GoM, annual catches steadily increased until the 1990’s, when it exploded exponentially (Acheson & Gordon, 2013; Species – American, 2018). Because a group conservation effort allowed the GoM lobster population to recover from overfishing and eventually flourish, we suggest that such an attitude would enable a reduced number of SNE lobstermen to maintain the fishery at a commercial scale, or even rebuild it somewhat.
Because all rest-of-century climate models predict that nearshore SNE ocean-floor temperatures will exceed 20°C progressively more often in coming years, catch regulations to rebuild the region’s lobster fishery are not wise because it will inevitably continue to decline, independent of fishing practices (Rheuban et al., 2017, pg. 9393). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recognizes this, and deemphasized regulatory measures for Southern New England in their February 2018 management plan addendum (ASFMC, 2018). Such a decision was predicted years ago. In 2011 Bill Adler, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said that members of the SNE industry were divided between advocating stricter management plans, or volunteer buy-outs (Tredwell, 2011). One lobsterman voiced the latter party’s concern during a Fisherman’s Forum: that existing lobstermen would eventually be edged out of business by harsher regulations combined with the dwindling lobster stock (Tredwell, 2011). And in 2017, Beth Casoni, the new Executive Director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, affirmed that trajectory when she said “Any further reductions in traps would be hard to accommodate, given that there are so few fishermen left in (southern) Massachusetts and Rhode Island” (Whittle, 2017). Climatic forces too large for short-term control are eroding Southern New England’s future as a commercial lobster fishery, and it will not be recoverable any time soon (Zickfeld & Herrington, 2015). Many lobstermen, like former Rhode Island captain Robert Bradfield, have had to withdraw from the business. After catching lobsters for 30 years, he ruminanated “it tore me apart to do something else…Financially, it didn’t make sense for me anymore” (Whittle, 2015). More lobstermen will need to find new livelihoods, like Robert did as a pilot boat operator. However, some hope remains for those determined stay in business by venturing into new territories.
Extreme-case climate models suggest an eventual decrease in the Gulf of Maine lobster stock, and that catches from recent years represent about peak abundance for the area (Rheuban et al., 2017; Pershing et al., 2018). Industry leaders, such as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, should draft a contingency plan outlining steps to dampen the economic toll of a smaller lobster stock in order to avoid a catastrophe like the one experienced in SNE. Lobster is the single dominating resource in Maine’s fishing economy, and if the lobster fishery suddenly failed then the consequences would be tremendous for the region (Steneck et al., 2011; Pershing et al., 2018). We encourage at least two measures. The first is a “trap-cap,” or a limitation on the number of lobster traps a lobsterman can place in each management zone he holds a permit for. There are seven zones, and right now all but one zone caps at 800 traps per lobsterman per zone (the one exception maximizes at 600 traps). In the event of concerningly low landings, the cap should be lowered incrementally from 800 to 700 to 600, in pattern with reductions enacted in the late 1990’s (Department of, 2018, pgs. 25.10-25.11). This will take pressure off the lobster population while lobstermen and researchers assess whether the deflated landings are a result of migration, overfishing, disease or predation (Wahle et al., 2015; Pershing et al., 2018). The second measure is novel, but SNE actually offers an opportunity to test its viability: The National Lobster Hatchery, based out of Cornwall, England, cultivates what they call an “active stock enhancement program.” Using European lobsters, close relatives to Americans, they occasionally accept egg-bearing females caught by lobstermen. They collect the eggs, release the female and allow the eggs to hatch, and then the larvae to develop for three months in a laboratory. Because lobster larvae are highly vulnerable in the wild, this increases their initial three-month survivability from less than 1% to 40%. Once the larvae become juveniles, they are released into the ocean (The National, n.d.). If Maine prepared a facility and a protocol to accomplish this with American Lobsters, they could bolster dwindling stocks if need be. The National Lobster Hatchery has no apparent data on the results of releasing their juveniles, but present-day SNE is a good candidate for a monitored experiment.
SNE is a perfect trial location for North American active stock enhancement. Larvae and juveniles prefer warm water, so they can be released nearshore at low cost to their health. As they mature and become disposed towards cooler water (Jury & Watson, 2013; Tanaka & Chen, 2015), they will either augment the remaining nearshore population in cool pockets, or migrate a ways offshore to join the offshore SNE fishery (Addendum XXVI, 2018). The latter location requires more time and fuel to reach by boats, but is still viable trapping territory (Pinsky & Fogarty, 2012; Pershing et al. 2012; Rheuban et al., 2017). Nursing and releasing young lobsters into SNE waters would serve two purposes: add members to the region’s fishery who will grow up to reproduce and/or be caught by our remaining permit holders (if it works), and give planners in the Gulf of Maine a point of reference for the technique’s efficacy.
We cannot recommend that Southern New England lobstermen prepare for a warming climate by re-outfitting their equipment for new fish species. Sources documenting the northward movements of commercially viable marine species, or a historical example of a fishing industry completely transitioning to a different type of fish, are either obscure or absent. To make matters more difficult, lobster trapping requires gear and techniques totally unique from net or line fishing (Acheson & Gardner, 2014; Pinsky & Fogarty, 2017). Lobsters’ high price-per-pound market value (Commercial Fisheries, 2016) also makes transition a difficult option, especially because there isn’t data projecting the population sizes of incoming replacement species that can be cross-referenced with their market value (Abundance x Value would tell whether or not a substitution could work). New studies are needed to determine whether fishing new species is commercially possible in the area.
In conclusion, the best option at sustaining the lobster commercial fishery is to adapt to the changing ecological fishery of the lobsters and implement policies that allow better management of the stock. Climate change has led to warming waters, which can have disastrous effects on lobster reproduction and physiology. To avoid these costs, American lobsters have simply migrated northward. This shift in geographic distribution in combination with improper management has caused diminishing fisheries in Southern New England, but holds potential in salvaging the remaining population. To sustainably fish these crustaceans, limiting permit availability is paramount to reduce the overall amount of traps in the water. Through implementing these policies and reconstructing how and where fishermen catch American lobster, we can hope to redirect the commercial fishery as well as the crustacean population back to a sustainable future.
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