Preserving New England Lobster Fisheries in the Face of Climate Change

By Thomas Isabel, Hannah Brady, and Shawn Monast

Since the 1970’s, the waters off the coast of Southern New England have been warming at a startling rate due to a toxic combination of man-made factors including greenhouse gases and pollution. These changes to the Earth’s atmosphere are happening at a rapid pace, making climate change one of the biggest issues facing humanity. The aqua life inhabiting oceans, especially coastal waters, are being forced farther North into ocean environments with cooler temperatures fitting their ideal thermal range. One of the many species being affected by increasing water temperature is the American lobster, scientifically known as the Homarus Americanus. These ocean creatures have been around for almost 500 million years, long before any humans were recorded on Earth, and they are now being pushed out of their homes as a consequence of human actions. Although lobsters constantly face different challenges to their populations such as predation and disease, climate change has become their biggest threat in the last decade. Fishermen all along the Eastern coastline rely on the catch and sale of lobsters to make a living to support their families and keep the market afloat. Without this species, fishermen and seafood establishments would miss out on a potentially crucial portion of revenue and be forced to rely on the catch and sale of other ocean species or perhaps a different profession in the fishing industry. The American lobster makes up a large percentage of income for fisherman and their migration due to global warming is crippling the economy of coastal regions. In order to save lobster fisheries in southern New England from climate change, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission needs to educate fishermen on the constant changes in thermal temperatures range, new production possibilities, and the migration patterns through technological advancements.  

Climate change has resulted in numerous irreversible changes on lobster populations off the southern coast of New England. The increasing water temperatures are forcing lobsters out of their current environment and pushing them up towards the Gulf of Maine to cooler waters, often out of range of traditional fisherman in the area. According to a paper written by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), from the early 1990’s to 2014 Maine’s lobster catch soared to a whopping 219%, equivalent to more than 124 million pounds total. This number is compared to the New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut statewide totals which ranged from a 70-97% plummet in lobster catch rates over those decades (Greenhalgh, 2016). These statistics collected from varying regions around New England do not imply that the total number of lobsters is decreasing, but instead that they are relocating as a whole and moving away from the New England region. Additionally, at the rate that climate change is progressing, those populations moving to Maine waters will eventually be pushed even farther North. According to a consensus study report called “Sharing The Fish” (1999), there are ten ‘Standard’ steps which apply to prevention of overfishing, all of which help highlight the importance of fishery resources to coastal communities (p. 114). These standards were put in place in an effort to preserve aqualife in the North American waters and ensure a sustainable population number in order for species to survive and reproduce, however varying and inconsistent changes in ocean temperatures are proving it difficult to pinpoint an exact solution. This concerning data is evidence of the need for swift action in research and forecasting to save economies in once lobster-rich areas from collapse.

As a species with a sensitive thermal range, the American lobster can only thrive in ocean waters of up to 20℃ or 68℉, which has been surpassed primarily due to the side effects of global warming (Greenhalgh, 2016). Erin Koenig from the American Geophysical Union states in her op-ed ‘American Lobster Feeling the Heat in Northwestern Atlantic’(2018) that the lobster begins to feel physiological stress at any maturity level when the temperature of their  environments surpasses 20℃. Bringing more current information and knowledge about suspected lobster migratory patterns to the table would ensure fisherman of the most accurate estimates of new lobster settlement locations. Clear patterns of the economy dwindling have shown severe miseducation of local fisherman based on past information. On the other hand, oceanic temperatures are not the only issue in forecasting lobster settlements. Looking at current production rates in New York, there was an over 9 million pound decrease in production from 1996 to 2014 (Greenhalgh, 2016). Temperature changes due to Climate Change suggest a simple pattern of migration, however acidification of the coastlines from global warming has caused the crustaceans to head farther offshore to deeper depths than predicted initially (Climate change impact on lobster already visible, 2015). An example of this migration was studied in the Narragansett Bay region where temperatures have been rising at an average rate of ~3℃ per decade since the 1970’s. In response, their settlement is becoming increasingly more common in the deeper mouth of the bay instead of the coastal environments (Wahle et al., 2015). Moving into deeper waters as an instinct to continue their normal life cycle results in further predatory threats to struggling American lobster populations, which complicates the issue even more.

It is our belief that it is up to marine authorities, including the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, to make their extensive research more publicly accessible and release comprehendable forecasting models. By providing accurate, current, and easily available information to fisherman, marine authorities can help alleviate the burden of fishermen in areas most affected by changing migratory patterns. For example, presenting the public with information including Narragansett Bay temperature fluxuations and reported depths of settlements would help fisherman make more educated decisions regarding where to set their traps (Wahle et al, 2015). With the help and guidance of marine commissions, lobster fisheries would have a better idea of where to expect settlements in the face of various threats to populations, and therefore be more enabled to revive their struggling economies. However, not all of the lobsters are choosing to migrate, and increasing mortality rates provide another layer of difficulty to overcome.

Luckily, breakthrough work is now being done by both the University of Maine and the Gulf of Maine Institute in forecasting the timing and areas of lobster landings in conjunction with models of coastal water temperatures. Through the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observation System, researchers have been successful in developing both statistical and numerical models that link larval transport and post-larval settlement to oceanic and atmospheric conditions (Thomas et al., 2010). Through their models, they aim to incorporate their forecasting into operational use by established fisheries and hatcheries for better placement of American Lobster larvae and subsequent lobster traps. Through consultation with fishery management agencies, researchers hope to build a direct link between variable oceanic conditions and the management of lobster fisheries (Thomas et al., 2010).

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has been working for the past several years to predict the timing of the annual ‘high landing mode’, the most active part of the summer when lobsters are caught. Using specialized buoys, they monitor the changes in oceanic temperatures off the coast months prior to the start of the season, overlaying them with average sea surface temperatures across the region (A. Pershing, K. Mills, 2016). This conjunction allows researchers to predict the likelihood of the season starting early, late, and the rough amount of time of the change. For example, the 2016 lobster season in the Gulf of Maine was predicted with a 53% chance of starting two weeks earlier than usual, information which was then relayed to the local fishing industry to allow them to prepare in time for the shift (A. Pershing, K. Mills, 2016).

Younger generations of commercial fishermen who were born into the industry and are skeptical of the solutions above may find more success in an alternative production method. Though a large amount of research has been done to save the lobster fisheries in New England, the potential to increase yield of wild lobster catch has become quite limited over the past decade. However, with new futuristic technologies and advancements in scientific research, lobster fishermen will have the opportunity to become involved in the artificial lobster farming industry. Known more specifically as Mariculture, or the cultivation of marine life as a food source, lobster farming has its roots in the quiescent home of the American Lobster, the Gulf of Maine (Anderson, 2009). Here, climate conditions play out just right, which allows the rearing of juvenile lobsters who require varying conditions at different stages in their life cycle. Once the lobsters surpass six inches in length, they are released to the bottom of the Gulf of maine to keep fisheries replenished for the over 5,000 fisherman in the Gulf. This system in Maine, however, highlights key issues in rearing lobsters artificially, especially the cost of maintaining their specific and frequently changing requirements (Anderson, 2009). Nevertheless, lobster farming is proving to be a more fruitful modern profession than traditional fishing techniques, many of which are kept out of pride and are not always scientifically based. Though it is a fairly new topic in the United States regarding lobster fisheries, this production method has been proven to be successful with a number of other marine species including oysters, salmon, and tilapia. There are many positive and negative aspects of this new farming industry for fishermen and they will need to continue their extensive research before making the decision to get involved, if they choose to do so. When focusing on the advantages of lobster farming, the most significant upsides are that the individual(s) responsible for the farm has the freedom to choose from a variety of species of lobster. These lobsters would also be cheaper on restaurant menus, creating potential for a rise in sales and the market to flourish again in Southern New England. According to an article written by Rosemary Bolger and Gregor Salmon (2015), in depth research was done by the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) while breeding the Rock lobster species in captivity. To begin their research, they observed and analyzed the life cycle of the lobster from egg to adult which has proven to be difficult due to their slow and complex growth and development. Researchers claimed this was the key step in understanding which environmental conditions in captivity the lobsters would thrive most. Lobster farmers begin the production process by housing lobsters in separate troughs of salt water based on stage of life, and then regulate the environmental conditions including salinity and temperature to fit the ideal range of that lobster species. But, there are groups of individuals against lobster farming facilities, due to the rise in electricity and water use as well as the general “artificial” feel surrounding the issue. Although farming is not the most natural production method for lobstermen, it could prove to be the most successful long-term as climate change progresses at a rapid pace.

Farther South of the Gulf of Maine, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is attempting their own method of creating artificial habitats for lobsters and other invertebrates. In a 2009 technical report, Barber et al. (2009) write in depth about the effectiveness of installing artificial reefs in Boston Harbor as habitats for struggling marine species in and around the harbor and Cape Cod Bay. They found that installation of artificial reefs would not have any detrimental effect on the surrounding ecosystems, and would instead provide an essential, protective habitat for juvenile lobsters during specific phases in its life cycle (Barber et al., 2009). The opposing side of this production method include old-school fishermen, and again those who prefer natural and traditional catch and sale of lobsters. However, this method would actually save a significant sum of money just by utilizing the ocean water instead of an indoor facility. This means there would be naturally regulated levels of salinity in the water and farmers would have the advantage of closely monitoring a small population of lobsters throughout their growth and development. These reefs may one day prove to be artificial hunting grounds for fisherman in southern New England.

Further studies in the Gulf of Maine have revealed the staggering inefficiency of past fishing methods, pushing fisherman to seek more modern and effective means of bringing home enough lobster to make a living. There are several factors to be considered other than location and water temperature. The fishermen also need to be knowledgeable of the lobsters’ feeding patterns and identify the most frequent and abundant sources of food for this species. One study suggested as much as 94% of lobsters which enter baited traps actually escape, proving to be a waste of both time and resources for fisherman (Corson, 2002). In an effort to save an over $300,000,000 industry, fisherman have become more educated on the dietary habits of the American Lobster in order to more effectively bait them into traps. Researchers in the Gulf found a direct connection between the catch rate of fisherman and the type of bait they used, with the most successful having used herring bait as opposed to other forms. This realization led to the discovery that at least half of the diet of lobsters in intensively fished areas was comprised of herring, with 80% of their entire diet being bait. A shift in the majority use of herring as bait for lobsters could increase average catch rates of fisherman as their traps attract more lobsters (Grabowski, 2002), (Steneck, 2013).

Studies suggest reduced growth occurs at temperatures above 25℃, likely due to the inability of lobsters to fully digest food and properly support their essential processes at these higher temperatures (Clemens et al., 2016). This infers that many of the lobsters being caught along affected coastal regions are likely thrown back due to being immature and less than the legal length. If this continues, the environmental commissions might be pushed to change the minimum required length that lobsters must be in order to be kept. However, in Portland, Maine a law was passed that allowed fisherman to keep and sell lobsters that exceed the 5 inch overgrowth limit (Canfield, 2011). The commercial fishing industry in the gulf of Maine argued that counting these large catches as a loss was simply unethical to their practices. By implementing this law, they indirectly hurt their further production possibilities in future seasons to come. These larger crustaceans reproduce less frequently with smaller lobsters and show no proof of better egg stimulation, however they still have the capability and would reproduce if still left in the water. This would further the population in that area with a settlement already in place with the larger lobsters and increase future season’s production.

The law in Portland only affects commercial fishing vessels with large catch rates, however it proves to be an overall injustice to both the environment and lobster settlements. The law should be turned back and reinforced to save the future productions and ensure that all of those fishing follow set laws and updated regulations. Environmental groups like the NOAA and New England Seaside Authority need to inspect fishermen’s catches and regulate more production than what is currently being regulated. Maine’s department of marine services states that it is easier to monitor the commercial catches coming in with the catch of the day, than the average fisherman coming in once or twice a week. With this in mind the patrol of the recreational fisherman needs to be further monitored to ensure everyone is following the size regulations to give the lobsters the best chance everywhere to reproduce and remain in their settlements.

Overall, there are several promising options for struggling fisherman in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. More accessible, understandable, and accurate forecasting models which combine predicted ocean temperatures with that of weather and ocean currents would provide fisherman with the tools to more precisely refine where they place their traps. Such forecasting should be present in popular and relevant newspapers, whilst also containing an online element which can be updated up to the minute. Finally, advances in the creation of artificial environments enable fisherman to have access to a constantly replenished and healthy population of the American Lobster to fish. In other areas warmer of the world different species of lobster are being successfully farmed and the technology is modernizing into different environments and species. As lobster hatcheries become more plentiful, so will the population of lobsters in areas currently facing the crisis of losing lobsters.


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