What rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine mean for the state’s lobster industry

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of climate change,
our next story looks at the impact it’s already
having, specifically in the Gulf of Maine.
The region is known for lobsters in those
Last week, we told you about the unexpected
fallout of tariffs in the lobster business.
Tonight, Miles O’Brien explores what the warming
of the oceans means for these crustaceans,
the industry, and the larger ecosystem.
It is part our series on the Leading edge
of Science and our contribution to Covering
Climate Now, a global collaboration of more
than 300 news outlets to enhance coverage
of the climate story.
MILES O’BRIEN: For Maine lobsterman Steve
Train, the hard work aboard the Wild Irish
Rose begins dark and early about 150 to 200
days a year.
STEVE TRAIN, Lobsterman: I fish year-round.
This boat can’t go without me on it.
If I don’t work, my helper doesn’t work, there’s
no paycheck.
MILES O’BRIEN: He’s been setting his traps
about four miles northeast of Portland for
30 years.
Fewer competitors here.
STEVE TRAIN: I would just come out here and
get away from fish over here.
You catch a little less, but you are all alone.
You didn’t have a problem.
MILES O’BRIEN: In the Gulf of Maine, which
spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, lobster
fishing has been anything but a problem for
In fact, warmer water caused by climate change
has spurred an epic run here.
Estimated lobster abundance in the gulf rose
more than 500 percent between 1985 and 2014.
Meanwhile, in Southern New England, abundance
decreased 78 percent from 1994 through 2014,
almost a complete collapse.
Scientists say this too is the result of rising
ocean temperatures caused by climate change.
ANDREW PERSHING, Chief Scientist, Gulf of
Maine Research Institute: We have sort of
averaged really warm years.
MILES O’BRIEN: That’s Andrew Pershing, chief
scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
ANDREW PERSHING: Rhode Island is really inhospitable
for lobsters.
It sort of shift the optimum temperature.
Now it sort of locked in on the coast of Maine,
and then Maine, with a really great lobster
habitat, has boomed.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, Maine is in the sweet spot,
at least for now?
ANDREW PERSHING: Right now, yes.
And then the question is, how much longer
is that going to continue?
MILES O’BRIEN: Like all cold-blooded animals,
lobsters are highly temperature-sensitive.
And the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than
99 percent of the world’s oceans.
Warmer atmospheric temperatures heat up the
water directly, but they also disrupt a crucial
ocean current commonly called the Atlantic
Conveyor Belt.
It sends warm water north, the Gulf Stream,
and cold water south, the Labrador Current.
As the glaciers in Greenland melt, more freshwater
flows into the North Atlantic slowing down
the Labrador Current, allowing more warm water
into the gulf.
And that is why the water temperatures here
are rising so much faster here.
ANDREW PERSHING: So, it’s a lot like a bathtub
where, if you turn down the cold tap, turn
up the warm tap, you get a really, really
hot bath.
It’s an extraordinary change that’s happened
really quickly in this region.
And so now we’re trying to watch how the system
We’re trying to figure out what does it mean
for us and how we make decisions about the
MILES O’BRIEN: Much is at stake.
The American lobster is the most valuable
single species fishery in the U.S. and Canada.
Eighty percent of the U.S. catch ends up in
Maine, where lobsters loom larger than life.
So the state is investing in some serious
science to better understand the life and
times of Homarus americanus.
Jes Waller is a lobster research biologist
with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
JESICA WALLER, Maine Department of Marine
Resources: There’s still questions about how
they grow, where they move, how they reproduce,
how they find each other in the environment.
We’re still working on a lot of that.
But that’s why it makes it an amazing thing
to study, is because there’s really endless
MILES O’BRIEN: She is focused on lobsters
in the early stages of their lives.
A mother like this one can produce 10,000
eggs a year that she nurtures under her tail.
Once they hatch, the larvae move toward the
Finding them in the wild is like looking for
a needle in a haystack.
So, even though a mom can produce 10,000 of
these guys, still hard to find them?
JESICA WALLER: Still hard to find them.
The currents take them everywhere.
Once they’re able to swim, they are really
looking for the perfect environmental conditions
in which to grow and settle to become those
So, there’s just a million factors that dictate
where they go and how likely we are to find
them on a given day.
MILES O’BRIEN: Only about one in 10,000 will
live long enough to reach harvestable size
and possibly your dinner table.
The diet of an adult lobster is no secret.
DAVID FIELDS, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean
Sciences: Lobsters are carnivores.
They feed really on other animals, and they’re
horribly cannibalistic.
So, they eat also their brothers and sisters
pretty regularly.
MILES O’BRIEN: But David Fields is more interested
in what lobsters eat when they are tiny.
He is a senior research scientist at the Bigelow
Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
He spends a lot of time analyzing what is
in the guts of lobster larvae.
DAVID FIELDS: When you open up the slurry
inside of a gut, it’s a little bit difficult
sometimes to identify who’s in there.
They’re eating really small animals that digest
and mix up pretty quickly.
So, opening them up and poking through there
is a good first step, and it’s a traditional
The second way is to pull a sample out of
that and look at the DNA and match the DNA
inside there to the DNA of organisms that
are out in the wild.
MILES O’BRIEN: A prime suspect in this hunt
is a tiny crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus.
They are a key link in the food chain in cold
water ecosystems, a staple from everything
from herring to endangered right whales.
Calanus are also very sensitive to rising
That might explain the mystery that fisheries
ecologist and zoologist Rick Wahle is trying
to sort through.
He leads the University of Maine’s annual
lobster settlement survey.
In recent years, he and his team have found
many fewer juvenile lobsters on the seafloor.
It could be the first indication a population
decline is under way.
ANDREW PERSHING: The other thing that people
are thinking about is, the warming has actually
expanded the acceptable habitat for the juveniles
down into some deeper waters, where maybe
couldn’t have survived before.
And so you might just be sort of stretching
that population over a larger area.
MILES O’BRIEN: Researchers hope all their
efforts will result in better models that
can lead to improved fishery management.
As it is, Maine lobstermen are extraordinarily
good at self-policing their industry.
They toss back small ones and the big ones.
Females with eggs get special treatment.
Their tails are notched, marking them as off-limits.
STEVE TRAIN: That lobster can’t be retained.
We have to throw it back.
It doesn’t have eggs now.
She probably did at one point.
And even if she didn’t, it doesn’t matter.
We can’t keep her.
MILES O’BRIEN: All of this helps, but lobstermen
like Steve Train can’t help but wonder if
the big boom is now past its peak.
STEVE TRAIN: We’re not getting what we used
And it’s not like it’s off 10 percent.
You know, it’s off 30 percent, 40 percent.
Our dailies are off, but they were late.
They hit later than they used to.
So, we have had a big change.
And this year is more like a long time ago,
just not what we’re used to.
But everyone seems to be crying as much as
I am.
MILES O’BRIEN: For now, the models predict,
over the next 30 years in the Gulf of Maine,
there will be a steady decline of lobsters
to pre-boom levels.
After that, it’s up in the air, and up to
how much carbon we keep putting in it.
If the warming continues unabated, the lobsters
will move on, and so will a way of life.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Miles O’Brien
in Portland, Maine.

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