Lobsters are on the move, but most lobstermen can't be

ISLESFORD, Maine -- David Thomas steered his car onto a wooden pier here that has been deeply stained over the years with crushed fish guts. This is where he comes to ponder what's been happening with lobsters. In a small office over the blackish water, next to barrels full of silvery bait fish, he reviews the seismic shift in his business.

The waters surrounding the island are teeming with lobsters, more than anyone can remember. Here, off the coast of central Maine, where coves and rocky points outnumber people, lobster landings have more than doubled over the last 10 years. The prized crustacean is moving north.

Thomas is cast back in a chair with the look of hard work all over him: His canvas jacket is darker than the graying beard that reaches down his neck. He's been dropping lobster traps in these waters for 39 years, but he senses something is wrong. He worries that this bonanza won't last.

The state's record catch came in 2012 when the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine, a huge expanse of sea stretching from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, climbed above average by a few degrees. Maine lobstermen landed 127 million pounds of the beady-eyed arthropods. It was a surprising haul for a state with fewer than 6,000 lobstermen, some of whom are accustomed to lowering traps into roughly the same places that their fathers and grandfathers did.

No one knows exactly why the explosion is happening, but most agree that there's probably more than one reason. Lobster traps now offer escape vents for smaller lobsters, fewer fish exist to prey on dime-sized youngsters, and fishermen are using more traps. Taken together, they offer a partial picture behind the climbing size of the catch.

But there is something else that's changed. "We know the water's warmer," Thomas said in the pier's office this spring, noting what's believed by scientists to be a key reason behind the lobsters' expansion. "There's no thought on that one."

"If the water keeps warming, one theory is the lobsters will just keep going north," he added. "I don't know. That's the scariest part in my mind. We don't know what's gonna happen."

Lobsters race warming water to survive

The worst is already happening 300 miles to the south, where the lobster fisheries that run from Long Island Sound up through Rhode Island are collapsing. The optimal temperature for a lobster is between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water surpasses 70 F, it holds less oxygen and the crustacean loses its "ability to exist," said Rick Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine who studies the species.

Higher temperatures associated with climate change have created summer extremes that nudge the waters along New York to Rhode Island above that threshold, he said. There are "dead zones" in areas of Long Island Sound. Some shallower parts now reach 75 F.

"It only takes a couple degrees," Wahle said. "The net effect has been this collapse of lobsters in southern New England while the lobster population in eastern Maine has gone through the roof."

Last year, a team of researchers managed to measure the movement of lobsters and dozens of other fish species over the last 40 years. Using an array of surveys, or fish counts, along the coasts of the United States, they found that most species want to stay in water with a temperature that's suited to their survival. It doesn't matter, so much, where they have to go to find it. They call this "climate velocity."

Lobsters were among those that traveled the farthest. Since the late 1960s, the range of lobsters has shifted 170 miles to the north. The crustaceans moved faster than the warming water, suggesting that shell disease, a bacterial infection that pits their exoskeleton and often kills them, is exacerbating the population shifts along with other aspects like depleted predators.

"It looks like from what we can tell they're moving toward cooler temperatures, but that's not the only thing" that's driving the move, said Malin Pinsky, an associate professor at Rutgers University and an author of the study. "Maybe the combined effects of rising temperatures and disease are pushing lobsters faster. That's one possibility."


No quick migration for lobstermen

There are also smaller signs of movement. Casco Bay, home to Portland's waterfront in the south of Maine, used to be the hub of the state's lobster fishery. Now bigger landings are happening up the coast. For Mainers, this shift is more than just about shellfish: Economic prosperity is also moving north.

But for families who sometimes have dropped their "gangs" of traps here for generations, it is much harder to follow their catch up the coast. State regulations hamper those movements; someone might wait years for an opening in a different fishery zone up the coast. Other resistance might come from the informal, and sometimes tough, territorial culture of lobstermen.

"Even if you sold your house and got a license and all of that, the local fishermen would have to accept you -- culturally," explained Nick Battista, who helps fishing communities adapt to their changing circumstances as a director with the Island Institute. "And it's a very territorial fishery. There are informal social arrangements -- you're gonna fish on this reef here and I'm gonna fish on this reef here."

The warnings from miffed fishermen are accumulating. Subtle messages might include the discovery of a half-hitch knot on a buoy line or a beer can in a trap. Outright threats are uncommon, but it happens. One fisherman from Islesford remembers hearing a chilling voice come over the boat's radio, saying he would kill another lobsterman for some misdeed.

Islesford is a collection of sturdy homes and a few roads on Little Cranberry Island, the last island between here and Canada with year-round residents. About 70 people live here; almost all of them are lobstermen and their wives and children.

Bruce Fernald looks more like a professor than a fisherman. But looks can trick a mainlander. His family has been on the island for six generations. All of them were supported by the crustacean found in the submerged crags nearby.

Today's boom in landings makes for a comfortable lifestyle, Fernald explained in the kitchen of his large home that was built during one of his family's previous generations. Unlike leaner years during the 1970s and '80s, his traps are providing college tuition for his kids and enough savings for retirement.

"What we've been seeing for the last 10 years is ... mind-blowing," he said.

Lobster is 'cheaper than chicken'

But he, too, has a nagging anxiety that the streak will end.

Climate models predict that the waters in New England will continue to tick upward over the next 50 years, potentially exposing southern Maine to unsettling impacts. There are also other signs that a slowdown farther up the coast might be coming.

"The big worry in Maine is as our waters continue to warm, we may start to see shell disease be more important here, at least in the southern part of the state," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Changes in water temperature also pose timing risks. In the banner year of 2012, lobsters began molting three weeks earlier than they usually do, unleashing a frenzied landing in early June that caught the processing plants unprepared. Lobsters were "cheaper than chicken," Pershing said.

To adapt for future climate mysteries, Pershing is involved in a project to predict the timing of the molt by testing water temperatures in April. That could help fishermen and processors get ready for the harvest.

But what if the super-harvests suddenly stop? There are hints they might. Current surveys of the youngest lobsters show sharp declines, said Wahle of the University of Maine. That could mean that the adult population could be smaller in about seven years, just when they're big enough to be caught.

As Thomas threaded the looping roads on the small island with a reporter, passing by the small wooden post office that also serves as a mini-grocery store and homes with stacks of buoys in front of them, he contemplated the arc of years that he's been steering his boat alone into the nearby waters.

And he seemed to decide that the record of 2012 will be just that -- a remarkable year that was too good to occur with any continuity.

"That's like thinking the stock market's gonna go up and up and up forever," Thomas said. "It's not gonna happen. Mother Nature's involved."

Twitter: @evanlehmann | Email: elehmann@eenews.net

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