Climate Change, Conservation, and The Lobster Boom
Climate change has become one of the defining topics of the 21st century. While most consider the effect of it to be overwhelmingly negative, there has been some positive consequences.
The Gulf of Maine, for instance, has warmed up to the point where it is the ideal temperature for lobsters. For that reason, Maine has seen a massive growth in the lobster population, increasing their fishery by five times to a $500 million industry (1).
It’s one of the most valuable industries in the United States, but the water in the Gulf of Maine has slowly been getting hotter. The warming temperature was a good thing first, but it continues to rise.
Last year, lobstermen’s total yield dropped from 133 million to 111 million pounds (1).
Because of climate change, scientists and fishermen are concerned that the water will heat up to the point where the boom can no longer last.
Dave Cousens, the former president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said that climate change would probably kill the industry in the next thirty years (1).
There are many reasons for the lobster boom, including the elimination – through overfishing – of predators like cod as well as lobstermen’s conservation efforts.
While these are significant factors, the fishing industry in Maine wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is today without climate change.
The Very Thing That Caused The Boom Will Also Cause The Bust
The Gulf Of Maine Research Institute (GOMRI) says their water has increased in temperature at a higher rate than 99 percent of the world’s oceans (1).
Because of climate change, as well as natural variation, lobstermen are concerned about the future of the industry.
The GOMRI predicts by the year 2050, the lobster population will fall precipitously by 62% (1). For that reason, Mr. Cousens is worried about the future.
Climate change may have helped with the boom of the lobster economy, but now it’s past that stage and is going too far. In the 1990’s, Cousens could haul up to around 60,000 pounds of lobsters per year (1).
However, last year, his earnings dropped by around 30%. And a bust like that can’t happen so many times in a row, otherwise, your business will go belly-side up.
As temperatures in the Gulf continue to rise, the habitat for lobsters is shifting toward the northeast, toward the islands of Vinalhaven and Stonington, as well as toward Canadian waters (1).
But the boom in those areas won’t last long either if the water temperature continues to rise.
The Future Of The Industry Is Precarious
Mr. Cousens is concerned for the future of fishermen who, right now, are buying expensive boats and gear, going into debt to jump head first into a dying industry.
Mr. Cousens explained that these young men grew up in a period of a booming industry, but they haven’t seen the downturns (1).
They have an idealistic notion of what it really is and don’t understand the full extent of what they’re getting themselves into.
The up-and-coming lobstermen are driving further out into the sea in much larger, faster, and far more expensive boats, an increasingly common norm among the younger fishermen.
But what these young men don’t understand is that the industry might not be there for them in the future as a means for them to pay off their expensive equipment.
Scientists state that lobster populations are expanding northeast and are thriving in much deeper waters as coastal waters continue to get warmer (1).
According to Cousens, when fishing offshore, the situation is very risky but also grants the possibility of a high-reward. The feeling is exhilarating because it’s either a massive success or a massive failure (1).
Conservation And Sustainability Methods Work – But They Can’t Fix Everything
Even though lobster fishing has been a wildly fluctuating business from its beginning, the conservation measures used by the modern lobstermen is playing a crucial role in the sustainability of their lobster habitats (1).
Scientists note that the conservation efforts are crucial in the avoidance of a future calamity.
The lobstermen cut off the end of the tail of the female lobsters and then release them. It’s called v-notching and it began back in the late 19th century. Later on, the government made it law to do so (2).
In other words, a v-notch is a symbol that fishermen put on a female lobster to indicate that it is a breeding lobster, and should be conserved so it can continue to produce lobsters for future harvest (2).
The reasoning for this is to ensure that lobsters continue to repopulate. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academies found that these conservation measures could stave off a future decline in lobster farming (1).
Andrew Pershing, a researcher at the GOMRI, said that their conservation methods has allowed them to take advantage of the boom, as well as granted them “resiliency” to the changes coming in the future (1).
To showcase the difference that these conservation measures played, Dr. Pershings and his other colleagues compared the fisheries in the Gulf of Maine to those in the Long Island Sound and Rhode Island, where there aren’t mandates to ensure the population of lobsters (1).
In those areas, the warming water led to an 80% decline in the lobster stock and the collapse of the surrounding businesses (1).
A professor of anthropology at the University of Maine who has written about conservation measures said that the Maine Lobstermen were strongly in support of the laws because they knew they worked (1).
However, there is only so much they can do in their fight against climate change as the temperature continues to rise, and lobsters can only handle 70 degrees (21.1 Celsius) Fahrenheit.
Dr. Wahle says that their organs start shutting down “one after one” when the temperature rises (1). It leads to “mass mortality.”
Rising Sea Temperatures Affect The Entire Biome And Every Ecosystem Within It
And climate change doesn’t just affect the lobster population.
The entire food chain, the eco-systems within the biome, all feel the changes brought on by rising temperatures. Even the rise in temperature by one degree has a significant effect (4).
For instance, in an article from Scientific American, they discussed the interactions between phytoplankton and zooplankton in the ocean, very small organisms at the bottom of the sea (4).
Mary O’Connor, a marine ecologist, explained an experiment she and her colleagues conducted, where they collected organisms from the ocean and put them in five different four-liter containers, or “microcosms(4).”
They exposed these organisms to variations of nutrients and temperatures. In theory, an increase of warmth and nutrients should result in the growth of tiny plants called phytoplankton.
However, researchers found that increasing temperatures, while enhancing phytoplankton growth momentarily, actually allowed for the increase of grazing from zooplankton, tiny animals that eat the phytoplankton.
O’Connor explained that when zooplankton starts to grow faster than phytoplankton, they end up eating all of the phytoplankton and effectively destroying their population.
In Mary’s words, it creates a “bottleneck” in the food chain that has a massive run-off effect on the rest of the food web.
Less phytoplankton means fewer organisms who can suck up carbon dioxide in the ocean, in addition to less food for other organisms in the ocean.
When there are more consumers than producers in an ecosystem such as this one, scientists find that it is only sustainable for around five years.
After that, the ecosystem collapses.
The Great Barrier Reef
The rise of ocean temperatures has effectively killed the Great Barrier Reef and continues to have a far-reaching effect across the entire ecosystem.
According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, temperature plays a crucial role in the distribution and diversity of marine life (3).
The temperatures contribute to the construction of reefs and control the rate of its growth. Like most marine animals, they have evolved over millennia within a small range of temperature.
When the temperature exceeds their regular level, they expel tiny algae living within their tissues, the algae which give them their color, their food, and their energy. It’s called coral bleaching.
Eventually, the corals starve and die altogether. However, Coral bleaching doesn’t always end up in the death of the coral.
But it is one of the main causes of the destructions of coral reefs around the world, especially in the last twenty years. Since 1910-1929, the temperature of the ocean around Australia has increased by 0.68 degrees Celsius (3).
And in the summer of 2012-2013, the oceans in Australia broke the record for the warmest ocean surface temperatures ever recorded (3).
The Case Of The Lobster
The case of the lobster boom is particularly grim. Even though lobstermen and lobsterwomen’s conservation efforts put them on the right track and allowed the flourishing of their industry, it still wasn’t enough to counteract against the effects of climate change.
However, this shouldn’t discourage us from using the same sort of practices which allowed for the Gulf of Maine’s industry to flourish in comparison to that of Long Island.
It’s better to think about how our actions and industries the future generations in the long-term, rather than short-term gains and profits in the present.