Climate change and Maine’s lobster industry

PHOTO COURTESY OF HARBORFISH.COM  Phoebe Little ’20 shares how her Maine upbringing shapes her understanding of the New England lobster industry.


Phoebe Little ’20 shares how her Maine upbringing shapes her understanding of the New England lobster industry.

Phoebe Little ’20 | Contributing Writer

There’s a photo of me as a kindergartener dressed in a plaid jumper and tights. In one hand, I’m clutching a sign written in my messy child’s scrawl that says “Augusta,” and in the other hand, a red plush stuffed lobster. The photo is from a class play about the state of Maine. Each student recited a fact about our home state for the assembled audience of our families. In the photo of me from that day, I’m beaming with pride about getting to hold the lobster, one of the most important symbols of our state.

Growing up in Maine, I was always taught of the importance of the lobster industry to the state’s economy. I learned that Maine catches around 80% of lobster sold in the United States, and that there are around 4,500 licensed lobster people and another 10,000 people in Maine who work jobs directly related to the lobster catch. I also learned that the lobster fishery is an impressive example of sustainable fishing and inter-agency co-management. Now, I’m a junior at Smith studying government and environmental science and policy. Now, I’m learning that Maine’s lobster industry, and by extension Maine’s economy, may be on the brink of collapse due to climate change, ocean acidification and rising water temperatures.

Before European colonization of New England, lobster was plentiful and part of a balanced ecosystem. The Maine ocean water was very cold, so the majority of the American lobster population was located in southern Maine. Penobscot Bay was just about the most northern point of the lobster habitat; because it was a region with high biodiversity, the lobster population was controlled by a plethora of natural predators — most notably the codfish.

Even when the Europeans started to build permanent settlements in Maine, lobster fishing was uncommon. The first recorded lobster catch was in 1605, but even then, lobsters were considered undesirable as a protein. They were so common and easy to catch that people thought of them as a pauper’s food.

It was in the late 1700s that the organized lobster fishing industry was really established. Technological improvements allowed for this, with the most important invention being the lobster smack. The smack is a small boat with holes that allow seawater to circulate around, therefore allowing the lobster to stay alive while in captivity. By around 1850, lobster was considered a delicacy and was therefore in high demand. This shift in attitudes came partially from new innovations in the culinary world, such as cooking lobsters live.

In recent decades, increasing ocean temperatures due to climate change have driven the lobster population further north to find cooler water. This means that Penobscot Bay, in midcoast Maine, is now at the epicenter of the lobster industry. Ocean acidification also helps to optimize Penobscot Bay for lobsters. Lobsters calcify more rapidly under high levels of CO2. This means that while organisms like clams, barnacles and fish find it increasingly difficult to function in higher-acidity ocean water, lobsters grow stronger and faster than ever before. Lobsters have also benefited from the overfishing of their natural predators, especially codfish. Cods have declined 99.2% since 1991, and as a result, lobsters are hunted in the wild far less than in the past, which has lead to a booming lobster population.

When lobster populations moved from southern New England to midcoast Maine, the region was ready. The lobster industry is incredibly popular and celebrated in Maine. Rockland, Maine has dubbed itself “The Lobster Capital of The World” and hosts an annual summer “Lobster Festival,” complete with a lobster boat race, sea princess beauty pageant, children’s lobster roll eating contest and a race where participants are challenged to run across the harbor on lobster pots. There are several islands in Penobscot Bay, such as Vinalhaven, Matinicus, Isle Au Haut and others, that are populated almost entirely by people involved in the lobster industry. The cold (or perhaps uncomfortably warm) reality is, if the reinforcing feedback loop in Penobscot Bay continues as it has over the past few decades, soon enough there will be no lobster. As ocean temperatures rise, lobsters will be forced up the coast towards the colder water in northern Maine and Canada. Overfishing will bring about the total extinction of codfish and the endangerment of other species, resulting in a reduction in the biodiversity of the region. The end of the lobster industry in Maine will lead to an economic disaster where hundreds of former lobster people are unemployed and entire communities are left without income.

Like many other complex environmental problems, ocean acidification and warming waters are a result of excess CO2 emissions, and solving this problem will require changes in policy and shifts in attitude. Some steps that should be taken include creating carbon taxes, transitioning to electricity without carbon, government-subsidized and environmentally-friendly technology updates and other policies that nudge people and businesses to make sustainable decisions. Research should be done on how to preserve overfished populations. This means both figuring out how to draft regulation that prevents overfishing as well as attempting to artificially increase the population numbers of endangered species by methods such as farming and releasing. Maine’s government should also take measures to prepare for the possibility of the lobster industry’s collapse. This includes economic development in communities with homogenous economies and job placement and education programs for out-of-work lobster people.

Practically every region in the world is home to systems like this one, and they will all be irreparably damaged by climate change. It is important that all the warning signs of regime change are paid attention to, even when, like in this case, those warning signs result in temporary positive economic progress and a wonderful local festival.