From our neighbors to the south comes a troubling warning about the economic impacts of climate change, one that underscores the importance of conservation measures such as those employed by Bay State lobstermen.
The warming of the waters along the southern New England coast have all but destroyed the Rhode Island lobster industry. At its peak in 1997, lobstering had an outsized impact in the tiny state, with landings totaling 22 million pounds, according to a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Arts and Sciences. By 2013, however, that yearly number had plummeted to 3.3 million pounds.
The precipitous drop coincided with a rise in ocean temperatures -- an increase of roughly 3 degrees since 1960. The waters off the southern New England coast now experience regular “heat waves,” just as we do on shore. During summer, the water temperature in Narragansett Bay routinely hits a once unheard of 80 degrees. That may be heaven for beachgoers but it’s hell on lobsters, who thrive in cooler waters.
So where did the crustaceans go? All evidence suggests that they decamped north. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Maine’s lobster landings surged as Rhode Island’s plummeted, growing 219% between 1994 and 2014, with yearly landings routinely topping 120 million pounds.
As Roger Warburton writes for the ecoRI News website, “Like rich Bostonians, Rhode Island’s lobsters have moved to Maine.”
It’s also been a boon of sorts for Maine and Massachusetts lobstermen. The two states account for roughly 94% of the country’s lobster landings. That has meant generally stable prices for fishermen and a steady stream of lobster for bib-wearing restaurant patrons.
The future, however, is much less rosy. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the rest of the ocean. That means lobsters will likely be pushed farther north, into Canadian waters (that country’s lobster industry is already enjoying boom times) or out to sea in deeper waters.
Such a shift would have a real economic impact locally. In 2018, Massachusetts lobstermen landed 17.5 million pounds of lobster valued at $87.9 million. And that number doesn’t take into effect all the dockside jobs the industry provides. To have the Bay State industry crater like Rhode Island’s would be a disaster.
There are other complications, including clashes between lobstermen and environmentalists who say fishing gear entanglements are killing endangered right whales, which have also followed warming waters north.
There is optimism to be had in knowing Massachusetts has been somewhat more aggressive in conservation measures than their counterparts in Rhode Island, which freely harvested egg-bearing female lobsters for decades, decimating the population even before it began moving north.
Massachusetts requires that lobstermen release all egg-bearing females. It also sets trap limits for its lobstermen, and those traps have vents to allow undersized lobster to escape. Rules on allowable minimum and maximum sizes of lobster are vigorously enforced.
Such measures won’t necessarily keep lobsters from moving to cooler waters. They will, however, help mitigate the effects of climate change, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which noted the lack of such protections for targets such as cod hastened the demise of those species.
As one researcher has put it, the Gulf of Maine is now “a paradise for lobsters.” That may eventually change. But the actions taken now can determine whether that shift happens over a period of years or decades.