The trend is driving lobstermen in Connecticut and Rhode Island out of business, ending a centuries-old way of life
Fisherman in northern New England have been catching record numbers of lobsters, but south of Cape Cod, the lobster population has plummeted to the lowest levels ever seen, in a northward shift that scientists attribute in large part to the warming of the ocean. Photo: AP
Portland, Maine: The US lobster population has crashed to the lowest levels on record in southern New England region while climbing to heights never before seen in the cold waters off Maine and other northern reaches — a geographic shift that scientists attribute in large part to the warming of the ocean.
The trend is driving lobstermen in Connecticut and Rhode Island out of business, ending a centuries-old way of life.
Restaurant diners, supermarket shoppers and summer vacationers aren’t seeing much difference in price or availability, since the overall supply of lobsters is pretty much steady.
But because of the importance of lobsters to New England’s economy, history and identity, the northward shift stands as a particularly sad example of how climate change may be altering the natural range of many animals and plants.
“It’s a shame,” said Jason McNamee, chief of marine resource management for Rhode Island’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s such a traditional, historical fishery.”
In 2013, the number of adult lobsters in New England south of Cape Cod slid to about 10 million, just one-fifth the total in the late 1990s, according to a report issued this month by regulators. The lobster catch in the region sank to about 3.3 million pounds (1.5 million kilograms) in 2013, from a peak of about 22 million (10 million kilograms) in 1997.
The declines are “largely in response to adverse environmental conditions, including increasing water temperatures over the last 15 years,” along with continued fishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said in a summary of the report.
At a power plant in Long Island Sound, for example, there were more than 75 days with a recorded average water temperature above 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Celsius) in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the report said. Between 1976 and 2010, that happened only twice.
In northern New England, meanwhile, lobsters are booming.
The population in the Gulf of Maine — a body of water that touches Canada, Maine, New Hampshire and the northern shore of Massachusetts — and in the Georges Bank fishing grounds farther out to sea has reached record highs, more than doubling to about 250 million adult lobsters since the mid-1990s, the report said.
Maine fishermen have landed more than 100 million pounds of lobster for four years in a row, by far the highest four-year haul in the state’s history.
“It very much looks like what you would expect from a species that is responding to a warming ocean: It’s going to move toward the poles,” said Andy Pershing, chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute of Portland, Maine.