Risk Factors of Maine Lobster Boom

Written by on August 29, 2011 in Marine Life
Credit: Dylan Kereluk

Photo Credit: Dylan Kereluk

 

By Henry Workman
Marine Science Today Writer

Authentic Maine lobster is considered by many to be an unparalleled seafood dining experience.  Despite estimations that a large percentage of “Maine lobster” sold worldwide doesn’t actually originate from the Maine coast, these crustaceans have been the enduring cornerstone of the state’s seafood industry.  Lobstering here has enjoyed a steep rise recently compared to previous decades, as well as neighboring regions.

Today lobsters account for 80% of Maine’s total seafood market, compared to about 50% in 1990, when species such as Atlantic cod were more abundant.  2010 set an all-time record high for the lobster haul, with over 90 million pounds harvested.  That amount was valued at around $313 million, nearly quadruple that of 20 years prior, and up from a $6 million industry in 1950.  With numbers such as these it’s hardly surprising that the term “golden age” has been tossed around to describe the current lobster boom in the Gulf of Maine, while catching continues to experience a rising trend.

Aside from a simple increase in lobstering activity there are a few potential bases for the spike.  For one thing, certain regulations aimed at protecting sustainability have been met with diligent adherence.  These practices include marking and returning breeding females, throwing back lobsters below a particular size standard, and other strategies that help keep the population at stable levels.  In addition, some species of lobster-eating groundfish have seen significant drops due in part to fishing, which also at least partially accounts for the lobsters’ takeover of Maine’s seafood industry.  The sheer amount of bait now providing them with an artificial food source of sorts may also play a role in the surge.

However, an industry entirely dependent on a single wild species is not typical, and nor should it be, suggests an essay appearing in Conservation Biology.  According to researchers it’s normal for a population to go through cycles, and if for any reason the lobsters’ dropped off as steeply as it’s risen, the consequences could be severe for those who have come to rely on them.  Lobster numbers in the past have been shown to respond to environmental fluctuations such as warmer air and lower levels of oxygen in the sea, which can contribute to the development of shell diseases.  Such hazards have already proven problematic on the coast of states farther south where the lobsters have become scarcer.  Dr. Rick Wahle and colleagues at the Darling Marine Center surmise that these populations have made a movement north in search of more suitable conditions.

In the words of Dr. Robert S. Steneck, a marine biologist at the University of Maine, these times represent a “gilded trap” for the state.  The paper states:  “large financial gain creates a strong reinforcing feedback that deepens the trap.”  The all-too-real threat of a years, or even decades-long lull ahead would alter not only the local ecology, but coastal communities.  Waterfront real estate has the potential to attract rapid development in areas once defined by fishing business.

Coming up with a reliable solution to prevent such a catastrophe, though, is trickier than simply anticipating it.  Some have proposed the introduction of measures to bring back cod, halibut, and other species that feed on juvenile lobsters.  Of course, this would harm lobstermen in the short term, and for the time being, many see no reason to panic.  The Maine coast may simply be less susceptible to the difficulties experienced in warmer waters, which could be what makes it the ideal hotspot for American lobster in the first place.

 

Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

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