Warm Ocean Water Hurts Lobster Populations, New England Economy

By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
September 17, 2013; 4:30 AM ET
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Since the international recession hit in 2008, most fisheries have been in decline, especially lobster fisheries. Meanwhile, ocean temperatures in the southern New England coastal areas have risen causing a slew of problems for local lobster harvesters. Meanwhile, just up the coast, Maine's lobster populations are booming.

"Weather impacts every lobster season," Acting Director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council Marianne LaCroix said. "The timing and variations of air temperature, water temperature, snowfall and rainfall all work to create a unique situation each year."

The increase in ocean temperatures over the past few years have affected lobster fisheries in parts of New England as lobster populations seem to have disappeared from the area's waters.

In this Feb. 14, 2013, file photo, lobsterman Mike Horning paddles his skiff across Perkins Cove after returning from fishing on a mild winter day, in Ogunquit, Maine. The ocean is warmer than usual again in the Gulf of Maine, creating worries among lobstermen that there could be a repeat of last summer's early harvest that created a glut on the market and havoc within the industry. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

"In southern New England, Buzzard Bay, Mass., and the waters off of Rhode Island, temperatures in the Long Island Sound area have become too warm for lobsters," Maine Lobstermen Association's Patrice McCarron said.

This summer alone, ocean temperatures in Buzzard Bay have been about 70 degrees, which is 3.6 degrees above normal. Central Long Island Sound water temperatures have been 2.7 degrees above normal, reaching 71 degrees.

These unusually warm water temperatures, according to scientists, could be the cause of the diminishing supply in the southern New England areas.

"Lobsters are very temperature dependent; there is a threshold below which if the water is too warm that would be beyond the range of the species," McCarron said. "The thought from scientists is that these lobsters have actually shifted offshore into deeper waters where temperatures are more stable."

Since the 1980s, the southern New England lobster stock has never been lower, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Lobsterman Ben Lash measures a lobster June 24, 2004, off the coast of Friendship, Maine. While Maine lobstermen continue to harvest record numbers of lobsters, states to the south have seen a dramatic drop-off. One theory blames global warming for the lobster decline. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Outside the dwindling lobster stock, the decline in population is producing hardships for lobstermen in the area's industry.

"A lot of fishermen are struggling because they aren't able to work," McCarron said. "The ground fish industry in New England has had their quota cut every year, so they are struggling to get in enough days to make a living."

As the second-leading producer for American lobster, according to NOAA, Massachusetts was responsible for landing nearly 12.8 million pounds of lobster in 2010.

In the coastal towns that most fishermen inhabit, McCarron estimates that approximately 90 percent of the town's economy is dependent upon the success of the lobster industry.

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The price of lobster is not aiding in the reimplementation of fishing jobs either, it is instead further accelerating the problem.

Lobster prices plummeted during the recession four years ago and, although they showed signs of recovery, they still remain too low for fishermen to feel like they are receiving a pay high enough to make a living.

Making it even harder for the fishermen, the prices for the necessary fuel and bait to catch lobster are steadily climbing, as the price of lobster remains soft.

"This is sort of a dire situation because people are losing their ability to make a living but the lobster simply aren't there," McCarron said.

Geography Makes All the Difference:

However, unlike Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Maine lobster populations just up the coast are thriving as water temperatures remain in the high 50s and low 60s range.

"In Maine, there has been a more constant population," McCarron said. "As you head up the coast to the mid-coast and down to the eastern areas, we have seen the abundance increase there. Overall, the temperatures and environmental conditions have been favorable for lobster."

Unlike the problems that southern New England is facing, Maine has seen quite the opposite problem as lobster populations are booming.

In this Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, photo, a sternman fills bait bags on a lobster boat passing Ram Island Ledge Light off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. California has its raisins, Florida has its oranges and Massachusetts has its cranberries. In the coming months, a new marketing strategy will be launched that aims to bolster the brand and sales of Maine lobster. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, files)

"They are doing well, the resource is doing well, so well that we are catching a lot," McCarron said.

According to LaCroix, in 2012, the Maine lobster fishery was valued at over 339 million at the dock.

Due to the vast differences between the states, there is a mismatch in the market and a lag with the market being able to keep up with the increase in supply in the Pine Tree State.

So, despite the bountiful supply of lobster in the area, prices are still low because the product demand has not yet reached the level of supply. As a result, the fisherman are still suffering.

In an attempt to better the situation, fishermen have taken matters into their own hands.

Last winter, lobster harvesters in Maine went to the state legislature and imposed a fee on themselves in order to increase the marketability of Maine lobster. The fishermen will launch this initiative this fall and fund it using money from their own pockets.

"Lobstermen and dealers are investing approximately $2.25 million per year in marketing starting in 2016," LaCroix said. "They will be building up to that amount over the next three years."

However, as Maine's lobster harvest prospers, southern New England lobstermen won't be as fortunate, at least not this season.

As scientists in the area try to figure out the main cause of the lobster retreat, for now, New England lobstermen will just have to wait and hope that the lobsters return soon.

Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.


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