Maine is in the midst of a lobster bonanza — last year alone, the state hauled in 111 million pounds of the crustaceans, worth around $434 million. This was a drop from 2016’s record catch of 132.5 million pounds (worth $540 million) but still more than five times what lobstermen brought in 30 years ago.
And when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
A new book warns that Maine’s $1.7 billion lobster industry (which accounts for 80 percent of America’s total lobster harvest and makes up 75 percent of Maine’s fishing revenue) is in jeopardy. An impending bust is threatening to upend it all — and lobster lovers and fishermen alike better brace themselves.
Science writer and biologist Christopher White’s fifth book “The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery?” (St. Martins), out now, lays out an alarming scientific case for the expected bust.
The Gulf of Maine, home to 250 million lobsters, a place more densely populated with them than anywhere else in the world, is warming faster than 99.9 percent of the world’s oceans. At first the warmer waters created ideal conditions for lobsters, who have multiplied in the favorable environment.
But as the water continues to warm, all of the positives turn to negatives — and White expects lobsters to either hightail it to colder waters or die off.
“There is little promise that the current boom will last long. The world of the lobster is heating up,” writes White. “The consequence for Maine could be catastrophic.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when lobster pots weren’t part of a well-equipped kitchen, but America’s love affair with the two-clawed crustaceans didn’t start until the 1800s.
In the 1600s and 1700s, lobsters were dismissed as “sea bugs” and were either fed to Maine’s prison population or used as fertilizer. Lobsters were so under-fished that they would wash up in 2-foot piles on Maine’s shores, according to the Pacific Standard.
Our tastes caught on in the 1800s as the price rose from 1 cent a pound to 13 cents a pound followed by more rising and falling depending on fluctuating supply and demand. (Demand fell, for example, during the Great Depression, when cash-strapped Americans lost their taste for luxury seafood.)
The growth of the middle class after World War II combined with an increase in lobster supply created a new culinary obsession for the status conscious. From 1950 to 1989, America hauled in around 20 million pounds of lobster a year — worth anywhere from 35 cents a pound to $2.50 a pound. (By comparison, the wholesale price in May 2018 was $8.51 a pound.)
By the 1990s, fishermen caught onto the moneymakers crawling on their ocean floors and bids for fishing licenses jumped 15 percent, while prices rose to $3.45 a pound. Maine’s 1999 harvest signaled the beginning of the boom era as a 53.5 million pound harvest brought in $185 million.
Demand continued into the aughts (with a slight dip during the recession in 2008 and 2009) leading us to the place where we are now: an all-out lobster extravaganza.
This bonanza hit its peak in 2012 and 2013 when two warm winters led to record harvests that came early — in June, when demand is lower, instead of July, when vacationers are hungry for lobster rolls. The year 2013 saw a record harvest of 127.8 million pounds, six times the average of the late 1980s, creating a glut that hit prices hard as supply outstripped demand. “That’s a lobster on the plate of one out of every six Americans,” writes White.
The sudden overabundance begged the question: What was happening in our oceans to make lobsters flourish?
Some of the population boom was due to rules preventing lobsters from being fished if they are too small or too big, White writes. Some of the rise came from the overfishing of cod, a lobster predator.
But the most significant effect has been the warming ocean waters thanks to climate change, writes White. Meanwhile, the hub of American lobsters shifted in the last 50 years as waters have warmed by several degrees. The lobster focal point used to be in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, now it’s 200 miles north, in the Gulf of Maine, which happens to be warming faster than almost all of the rest of the world’s oceans.
Lobsters migrated because they were seeking a “thermal niche” or an optimum temperature zone — between 54 and 64 degrees — that is most hospitable.
Warm(ish) water is great for lobsters. As July approaches and surface temperatures exceed 50 degrees, young lobsters molt and female lobsters get ready to mate.
When eggs hatch, the larvae float to the ocean surface, where they undergo three more molts until they resemble small adults — a process that takes between three and 12 weeks. The warmer the water, the faster a lobster molts. Once they molt, lobsters enter four more stages of development until they can safely land on our plates — a process that can take up to eight years.
High temperatures shave off the time to adulthood by one to two years. And when females mature faster, they also can bear eggs and breed faster, making them more efficient baby-makers.
Those glut years of 2012 and 2013 saw ocean temperatures that were 4 degrees warmer than average, which White says “increased the speed of the lobster molt and enhanced the population of legal-sized lobsters. This combination prompted a record harvest that year.”
But there is too much of a good thing where warm waters are concerned.
When the temperature hits or surpasses 68 degrees, it “stresses” the lobsters by impeding their breathing. “Stressed lobsters either flee to deeper (or more northern) waters or die,” writes White.
There’s also evidence that high temperatures make lobsters more susceptible to epizootic shell disease, a disfiguring condition. Some also speculate that the warmer waters soften lobster shells, making it impossible to ship the lobsters during a time when international importing of lobsters is skyrocketing. (China imported 17.8 million pounds of lobster, worth around $90 million in 2017 alone, 127 times more than 10 years ago.)
In the long run, high water temps might also reduce fecundity. One lobster researcher reported a 31 percent drop in lobster fertility over the five years she studied them as waters warmed.
All of this came to a head in the Long Island Sound starting in 1999. As waters began to regularly exceed 68 degrees, the $100 million lobster industry — and 90 percent of the lobster population — was eventually wiped out.
So is this a harbinger of things to come? What will become of Maine’s lucrative lobster market?
White expects that the bust will come in two waves. First, there will be a drop in egg production thanks to the lowered lobster fertility.
The second wave will come because fishermen will be slow to curtail their hauls. With the rising pressure from China — which now accounts for more than 10 percent of the market — there will be added pressure to keep haul levels as high or even higher.
This, writes White, could create the perfect storm and push lobsters even farther north or kill them.
Some fishermen have already heeded the warning signs. In southern New England, fisherman who used to hunt lobsters and cod have switched to black sea bass, a warmer water fish whose numbers are increasing.
But as sea surface temperatures are expected to climb 3 percent in the next 75 years — where will the lobsters go and what will our oceans look like without them?
Lobsters, White writes, are basically the ocean’s coal-mine canaries. “Migrating lobsters are a clear symbol of climate change,” he writes, “as are the melting glaciers of Montana.”
LOBSTER FACTS & FIGURES
- 2017 had a haul of 111 million pounds, worth $434 million.
- 80 percent of America’s lobsters are hauled in from Maine.
- 2016 was a banner year for lobster catching — America’s total lobster catch was a record $669.3 million, bringing in 160 million pounds.
- Experienced lobstermen can make up to $200,000; summer jobs can earn you $60,000.
- Lobsters turn red when they are cooked because they contain a chemical called astaxanthin, which has a red hue. The chemical is obscured by the dark blue of crustacyanin, another chemical in the shell, when they are raw. But when they’re cooked, “the blue crustacyanin molecules become denatured, losing parts of their chemical structure, permitting the red astaxanthin to radiate through,” writes White.
- There are 3,800 active lobstermen off Maine, working around 800 traps each. That adds up to over 3 million traps on the ocean floor — more than at any other time in our history.
- Dock price of lobsters fluctuates. Lobster prices are lowest in autumn, when supply is high but demand is low after the summer. The price climbs in winter, where there is higher demand for seafood during the holiday but lower supply. This continues into the spring, when prices can double, peaking in April.
- The minimum legal size of a Maine lobster is 3 1/4 inches measured from eye socket to tail. The max size is 5 inches.
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