June 04, 2020
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As the ocean gets warmer, are the lobsters heading to cooler northeast waters?

ROCKPORT, Maine — In the ocean off Rhode Island, fisherman Rodman Sykes has noticed far fewer cold-water species like lobster and more warm-water species like mahi-mahi and electric rays cruise by his boat in recent summers.

There’s been an awful lot of changes,” he told a roomful of fishermen and policymakers Saturday during a seminar on climate change and ocean acidification at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum that was hosted by the Island Institute. “‘What’s that? Get the book!’ We’ve been getting the book an awful lot more in the last few years.”

That dispatch from the immediate south gives Maine fishermen such as Steve Train cause for concern. The major fishery in the Gulf of Maine is lobsters, but the Casco Bay lobsterman said that in his 38 years of setting traps, he’s noticed the water is getting warmer and things are shifting here, too. Lately, he’s seen lots of anomalous species like red hake, turbot, squid, black sea bass and Maryland blue crabs in Maine waters but fewer native species like shrimp and cod.

“Climate change is certainly affecting not just the fishing, but the way we’re managing the fishing,” Train said. “The quantity of lobsters being caught for years was always heavier to the westward, lower to the eastward. Now, it’s flip-flopped.”

The lobster catch in zone A, from Schoodic Point east to the Canadian border, is seven times more now than it was just 10 years ago, Train said.

“It’s good for them, but zone A, that’s our last zone,” he said, suggesting that maybe 10 years from now the majority of lobsters will have migrated even farther east — to Canadian waters.

Another presenter, Jonathan Labaree of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, shared some information about how the 2012 ocean heat wave affected the state. At that time, the Gulf of Maine experienced “remarkable” warm temperatures, he said. The sea surface temperature that year was two degrees Celsius more than usual, according to his institute.

“This was a massive warming event that covered the entire northwest of the Atlantic,” he said. “This was a huge event that had consequences throughout the region.”

That ocean heat wave affected coastal ecosystems in all kinds of unpredicted ways. In addition to mid-Atlantic species like black sea bass and squid, seahorses showed up where they never had before. The record temperatures increased the speed of the lobster molt and enhanced the number of regulation-sized lobster, which helped lead to the record lobster landings that year. One lesson to be learned from the heat wave of 2012 is that species management can’t rely on history, Labaree said.

“These changes are happening so dramatically and quickly,” he said. “Looking back is not going to inform how we move forward.”


Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified the Rhode Island fisherman as Rodney Sykes. His name is Rodman Sykes.

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