The lobster industry along the New England coast is changing, and its two major lobster stocks are evolving in dramatically different directions. North of Cape Cod, lobster populations are booming, but in the south, the stock has greatly declined.
In Maine, where catches have reached record highs in recent years, optimism surrounding lobstering contrasts with attitudes farther south and with the New England fishing industry in general.
Still, the environmental factors impacting lobster have presented those involved with the industry, people who have historically valued being responsible stewards of the ocean, with the task of figuring out how to respond to changes that are largely out of their control.
“One of the biggest challenges and questions in fisheries management right now is how do we adapt to these changing conditions,” Megan Ware, American lobster fishery management plan coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), said.
(Photos/Patrick Daly/Maine Lobsterman's Association)
Jim Dow lives in Bar Harbor, Maine, and has been lobstering for 30 years. He comes from about five generations of fishermen, and he learned how to catch lobster from his father and great uncle.
“As it is with every coastal community down the coast of Maine, fishing is a community operation,” Dow said. “We all know each other in this harbor, we’re all friends, half of us are related and everybody looks out for each other.”
The overall landed value of Maine’s lobster fishery in 2016 was more than $547 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and it is a vital industry for many coastal communities.
“Lobster fishing is about the only industry left here,” Dow said.
Various factors have contributed to Maine’s growing lobster population since the mid-1990s. Some of these are practices lobstermen and the state of Maine have implemented to protect the fishery, like restrictions on the size of lobsters people can catch and limits on the number of lobstering permits in the state, said Dow.
Other environmental factors, like ocean acidification and changing numbers of lobster predators, have also influenced lobster populations, driving them up in the Gulf of Maine and down in southern New England.
One variable that has been a significant influence in lobster abundance has been warming water temperatures along Atlantic coast.
Lobsters prefer temperatures between about 54 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and when temperatures are above 68 degrees Fahrenheit, they become stressed.
Along the Northeast, where sea surface temperatures have warmed by about twice the global rate, southern New England waters are more often above the 68-degree threshold. In contrast, the Gulf of Maine is more frequently within optimal lobster temperatures, according to a 2015 report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).
Most signs regarding Maine lobster are positive, but climatic factors like warming waters and ocean acidification could pose a challenge in the future, University of Maine Lobster Institute Director Bob Bayer said.
“The elevated water temperatures right now seem to be beneficial in most places [in Maine], but that’s not going to go on forever,” Bayer said. “Lobsters do have a tolerance, and once you get beyond that there are going to be problems.”
Figuring out how to respond to these factors has been difficult. In southern New England, the ASMFC was considering changes to management regulations to try to increase lobster populations. After hearing from industry members in favor of keeping the status quo, the commission decided to forego the changes.
“Some of the comments on that were that it’s not fishing pressure that’s causing this decline, it’s environmental factors, environmental changes, and those that are left have been able to find a way to make it economically viable, so they should continue that practice,” Ware said.
Dow said he thinks Maine’s lobster future looks positive, although the Maine Lobster Advisory Council, in which Dow also participates, is also working to create a plan that would slow fishing pressure if needed.
“We really don’t have any control over the atmosphere or acidification,” Dow said. “There’s not much we can do other than be good stewards.”
Questions about managing stocks that are being affected by environmental changes, both positively and negatively, are questions Ware said the commission was trying to answer. But she said there doesn’t seem to be a great answer yet.
Dow has always been interested in lobstering; he grew up by the water, on the docks, and says it’s what he's always wanted to do. Now that Maine has a lot of lobster and lobstermen are doing better, he said more and more kids are also interested in becoming fishermen.
“I’m hopeful,” Dow said. “I don’t have any sons or daughters who are lobster fishermen, but hopefully I’ll have grandsons and granddaughters that want to be lobster fishermen, and I know everybody feels the same way for their children, their grandchildren. They want the fishery to be there for them.”