PORTLAND, Maine — Scientists from throughout the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada, and even a few from Europe, are gathered in Portland this week to discuss the venerable Homarus americanus, also known as the American lobster.

The symposium, hosted by the Maine Sea Grant program at the University of Maine, is a rare chance for scientists who study the American lobster to share research and discuss the state of the fishery, according to Rick Wahle, a research associate professor in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences and one of the co-chairmen of the symposium’s steering committee.

“We’re at a remarkable juncture in the history of the lobster resource right now,” Wahle said. “On the one hand, we have this surge in lobster population we’ve never seen before in the Gulf of Maine, [but] as you go to southern New England, it’s a collapsing fishery — and the causes may be the same.”

One of those causes, Wahle said, may be climate change.

The topic of climate change and its effect on the fishery was one of the major discussions on the table at “The American Lobster in a Changing Ecosystem: A U.S.-Canada Science Symposium.”

Temperatures in eastern Maine, where increases in catch have occurred, have increased a few degrees Fahrenheit over the last few decades, according to Wahle. At the same time, southern New England has watched its lobster population collapse and not recover, Wahle said. In western Long Island Sound, lobster landings have decreased 99 percent since 1998, according to Connecticut officials cited by the Associated Press.

Evidence of the changing temperature’s effect on Maine’s lobster fishery can be seen when looking at nursery grounds, which scientists, including Wahle, have monitored for decades.

“Historically, eastern Maine, as good as the habitat was, those nursery grounds were virtually devoid of baby lobsters back in the [1980s],” he said. “But since about 2000, we’ve seen mounting populations in those nursery grounds. They’re just chockablock full.”

However, rising water temperature isn’t the only factor in the growing population in eastern Maine, Wahle said. It’s more of a correlation that’s impossible to ignore, he said. There are, after all, other contributing factors to the Gulf of Maine’s growing lobster population, such as the depletion of groundfish, a natural predator to young lobsters.

The collapse of the fishery in southern New England offers scientists an opportunity to help protect the future of Maine’s fishery, according to Carl Wilson, lead lobster biologist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

While the same signs that preceded the fishery collapse in southern New England aren’t being seen in the Gulf of Maine, that doesn’t mean the industry should become complacent, Wilson said.

“While we can celebrate the high abundance and good landings, it’s also a very precarious position — precarious because there’s a high expectation on this resource,” he said.

Wahle agreed, fearing the effect a collapse of Maine’s lobster fishery would have on the state.

“It puts the fear of God in fishermen to imagine what happened in Rhode Island happening here,” he said. “Just the magnitude of the fishery here is so much greater and they’re so perilously dependent on this single fishery. In southern New England, they’ve got scallops to fall back on or groundfish, but here in Maine we’ve depleted scallops, groundfish are in really tough shape, and urchins were depleted back in the mid-’90s. So it’s sort of a miracle that lobster took off and we have a sense of why that might be happening.”

Another reason to spurn complacency is that the current abundance of lobster offers its own problems, such as what happened this summer when a glut of Maine lobsters caused protests in Canada and depressed the boat price to the point where some lobstermen couldn’t afford to go fishing.

“If that’s happening at record value and record landings, that should be a flag that there are signs of stress in the industry,” Wilson said.

While lobstermen in eastern Maine were able to make up for it by landing greater volumes, lobstermen in western Maine didn’t have that luxury, Wilson said. He added that 2012 landings likely are to exceed the record 2011 landings of more than 100 million pounds.

“What we thought 20 years ago has to be amended in the face of what’s actually happened,” he said. “So there’s a new feeling that we’re all maneuvering through a dark closet. … And we’ll get there, but it’s not [like] there’s a door with the light on.”

The symposium organizers plan to collect several of the papers presented at the event and put them through the peer review process. The plan, Wahle said, is to publish them in a dedicated section of a future issue of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.


Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.