But if, as some have predicted, Maine’s lobster boom since 1990 reverses itself, lobstermen might find themselves having to catch something else in order to maintain their livelihoods out on the water. With an eye toward the future, many in Maine have been looking south to see what kind of emerging species other fishermen are catching as climate change disrupts the environment.
In southern New England, many fishermen have turned their attention to species such as Jonah crab and black sea bass, the numbers of which have increased as ocean temperatures warm and as lobster in the region have become more scarce. Maine’s lobster landings remain near historic highs, but some say the changes that have occurred south of Cape Cod are inevitable in the Gulf of Maine.
“I know it’s a hard concept to get around, but it’s going to happen,” Norbert Stamps, a Rhode Island fisherman, told a roomful of other fishermen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport in March. “It seems as the lobster declined [in southern New England], the crab increased. And sea bass are everywhere.”
The spread of black sea bass from the mid-Atlantic into southern New England has been a modest silver economic lining to the decline of lobster. In 2016, fishermen in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island together earned $2.38 million off a harvest of 677,000 pounds of black sea bass, which is three times the volume and six times the revenue they made off the species 20 years earlier.
“Sea bass are coming [to Maine],” Stamps said. “It’s a tremendous financial opportunity.”
Maine fishermen, scientists and regulators for years have acknowledged that a decline in the gulf’s lobster population will happen at some point, but still the state’s commercial fishing industry remains heavily reliant on lobster, which made up three-quarters of Maine’s total commercial fishing revenue in 2017.
But there are signs environmental changes already are under way in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99.9 percent of the world’s oceans. Species such as shrimp, urchins, and cod have declined in the Gulf of Maine, and the warming water temperatures that up to now have been beneficial to the survival rate of young lobsters may be moving beyond the creature’s comfort zone.
Other species such as squid and green crab have a growing presence in the gulf, though many of them show up only seasonally. Black sea bass, which migrate off the continental shelf in winter, also are showing up along Maine’s coast in the summer.
Marissa McMahan, a Georgetown native, said Tuesday that prior to 2012, when she worked as a sternman on her father’s lobster boat, he had caught maybe three or four black sea bass ever in his traps. That summer — which started out with an abnormally warm spring — they caught and released maybe 30 of the fish.