Part Two of the American Lobster in a Changing Ecosystem

by Catherine Schmitt

The symposium attracted an impressive media response, starting with the Associated Press (first at the CBS News website, and then a story from the conference about guessing the age of a lobster). Both WCSH6 and WGME covered it on their evening news, as did MPBN radio (including some more extensive interviews available online). The Portland Press Herald had a story, and Bill Nemitz profiled UMaine graduate student and Maine Sea Grant Scholar Noah Oppenheim in his Friday column. Noah’s research also landed on The Salt, the food blog from National Public Radio, and National Geographic. Also Fishermen’s Voice, Bangor Daily News, Seafood News, and Atlantic Fisherman.

The media interest shouldn’t really be surprising, despite the seemingly shocked tone in the voices of some news anchors—lobster is, after all, Maine’s largest and most valuable fishery, is a major tourist attraction, and is a significant component of the economy and culture of many coastal communities. Some of the reporters said that their readers are interested in lobster.

Another thing that shouldn’t be a surprise is change in the lobster population, said Michael Fogarty of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Fogarty began the day by illustrating the dramatic changes in distribution of Maine’s lobster population, with the center of the population shifting north and east, two degrees in latitude since the 1960s. Lobsters have expanded to more habitat types, such as soft mud. In the past, lobster landings have followed temperature trends (with a six to eight year delay), with landings increasing during warmer periods. Given the increase in stratification of water over Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine in recent decades, it is unclear how past trends foretell future patterns. Calling maximum sustainable yield “a convenient fiction,” Fogarty said that surprise is the hallmark of “complex adaptive systems” like the ocean.

UMaine’s Lew Incze agreed, saying it is no longer valid to assume “ecosystem stationarity.” Was it ever valid?

While the absence of cod continued its shadow over the proceedings, many of Thursday’s presentations told stories of a successful fishery. V-notching and size limits have helped to conserve large, healthy female lobsters that produce more offspring. And, unlike other fisheries, the physical attributes of the fishery keep fishermen in contact with one another, where they have learned to tolerate each other and work collectively to take action to preserve the fishery, according to Jim Wilson of the University of Maine. Throughout, scientists highlighted the uniqueness of the lobster fishery, and the importance of sharing lessons learned with those outside of the lobster ecosystem.