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Researchers: Global Warming Could Wipe Out Maine Lobsters in 85 Years

Words by Sarah Lozanova
Energy & Environment
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The Gulf of Maine is warming at an alarming rate. Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows ocean temperatures are rising at three times the rate of global averages. This increase in temperatures is linked to the collapse of the New England cod population, and new research shows the fate of the Maine lobster is likely similar.

A new report from the University of Maine Darling Marine Center and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences predicts the Maine lobster population will be wiped out by 2100 due to climate change. The study examined how lobster larvae are impacted by rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. Although acidification seems to have no significant impact on the larvae, warming temperatures are a different story. Lobsters reared in water that is 3 degrees Celsius warmer than current temperatures in the western Gulf of Maine had bleak survival rates.

“They developed twice as fast as they did in the current temperature of 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit), and they had noticeably lower survival,” says Jesica Waller, a graduate student at the Darling Marine Center and lead author of the study. “ ... Really only a handful made it to the last larval stage. We noticed it right from the start. We saw more dead larvae in the tank.”

The research involved raising over 3,000 lobster larvae until they exited the larvae stage, which takes approximately 30 days at current ocean temperatures. Walker also says these are short-term experiments and it is difficult to predict if lobster populations can adapt to temperature changes over time. More research is needed to predict this.

Although this research provides greater information about the fate of the Maine lobster, observations also yielded concern about this iconic crustacean. The Maine lobster population likes colder waters and is migrating north in search of them. Lobster fisheries off Long Island and Connecticut are in decline as the lobster move further north into Maine. In fact, a 2013 study from Princeton University found that Maine lobsters migrated about 43 miles north each decade between 1968 and 2008. If this trend continues, the Maine lobster will end up in Canadian waters. In other words, we can predict where populations will end up by studying the pace and direction of climate change, known as climate velocity.

"We don't want to restrict fishing when not needed, or blame climate change for a species collapse when fishing is to blame," Pinsky said. "There have not been many attempts before to connect fine-scale biological data with fine-scale climate data. Our research implies that climate can be very useful for predicting marine distribution shifts. We expect these species to follow climate velocity in the future."

Such shifts in marine populations can have a big economic impact on local communities that rely on lobster and other seafood for their livelihoods. Maine lobster fishermen hauled in a record-breaking $616.3 million catch in 2015 at $4.09 a pound, in a state with a population of just 1.3 million. The total input into the Maine economy is much larger when considering all that are involved in the industry, points out Jonathan Fulford, a candidate for the Maine Senate.

Lobstering is often a multi-generational family tradition and is one of the oldest continuously operated industries in North America, dating back to the 1600s. Lobstering has changed little over the years and still involves hauling lobster from traps by hand.

“The coastal Maine economy is driven by lobsters,” Fulford says. “In many of the communities throughout our state, lobstering is their lifeblood. If we lose the lobstering tradition, it will change coastal towns and islands completely.”

These recent studies highlight the importance of gaining a deeper understanding of climate change and its economic impacts. Proper planning can foster resiliency from the impacts of climate change on local economies, but there may be no way to mitigate the social impact of losing this iconic industry.

Image Credit: Flickr, Richard

Sarah Lozanova

<a href="http://www.sarahlozanova.com">Sarah Lozanova</a> is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova