In his latest book “The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery?” Christopher White notes that lobstermen are sometimes referred to as the state’s “patron saints of lost causes.”
Maine’s lobster fishing men and women have long been subject to the whims of food trends, supply and demand, the weather, fuel prices, labor markets and supply costs.
Now, according to White, they are facing an even greater and more far-reaching issue: that of persistent global warming.
Global warming, White said, is a major factor in recent downturns in the Maine lobster harvest that went from record amounts of upward of 132 million pounds in 2016 to 110 million pounds the following year — a drop of nearly 20 percent.
Over the course of a year, to put a personal picture on this situation, White spent time in Stonington with three lobster boat captains whom he said are on the front lines of climate change and global warming.
And if the lobstermen and women are on the front lines, the lobsters are the advance scouts.
“More and more lobsters are showing as in indicator species of the effects of global warming and ocean warming,” White said. “You can argue back and forth how many different factors are influencing the reduced harvest every year — and there are a number of factors — but the biggest is the warming of oceans.”
Working from a 2013 study published in Science Daily by Dr. Malin Pinsky, associate professor of with the department of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers University, White shows how lobsters are among 360 marine species moving north in the north Atlantic Ocean as waters warm.
“I didn’t know how much marine species were moving north until I found this professor at Rutgers,” White said. “The (2014) study showed that lobsters are moving north at 43 miles per decade.”
That migration north, he said, makes the lobster something of an environmental indicator species.
At the rate of migration, White said, in 40 or 50 years the bulk Maine state crustaceans population will be far enough into Canadian waters that they will be off limits to Maine lobstermen and women.”
“We definitely need to be thinking of a plan now,” White said. “We need to look at how to stop ocean warming and global warming and ways to adapt to the coming climate change.”
White said he got the idea for “The Last Lobster” by combing the topics of his two previous books, “Skipjack” and “The Melting World.”
“‘Skipjack’ is about the problems of overfishing faced by the fishermen in Chesapeake Bay,” White said. “‘The Melting World’ is about the disappearance of glaciers in North America due to global warming. I decided it would be interesting to put those ideas together.”
Looking at changes in the ocean and land temperatures can be frightening, White said, and it can appear things are on a course that is set in stone.
“It is difficult to see how we can stop this warming quickly,” he said. “The momentum is underway to see temperatures increase this century 3 or 4 degrees centigrade, and that is very scary.”
The oceans, he said, have been in a stasis since the last ice age 12,000 years ago with regard to temperatures and sea levels, up until a century or so ago.
“We have seen the sea levels rise 8 inches in the last 100 years thanks to melting glaciers,” White said.
White hopes that by telling the stories of lobster captains like 55-year-old Julie Easton of Stonington, people will get a feel for the urgency of the global warming crisis.
In the book, White quotes Easton who said, “Lobstermen are just starting to get our heads around this whole global warming thing. If it is warming, we’re out of luck. What we fear most is coming out here one morning and finding no lobsters in our traps. No one talks about it, but that’s what we worry about.”
People need to start talking and doing something about it, White said.
“These personal stories are needed to get people to understand the immediacy of what is happening,” he said. “That is the approach I take to environmental writing — telling real stories about real people’s lives.”
The people in Stonington who rely on lobsters for a living are doing what they can in the short term to keep the industry alive in Maine, White said
“They are doing things like trying to keep the prices of lobster from dropping through the floor by stimulating demand around the world,” he said. “They are working in a very progressive manner.”
But everyone needs to get on board for the sake of the lobster, other marine species and for humanity.
“I really hope people reading my book see the lobstermen as a window through which to view global warming and what it is doing to our planet,” he said. “I hope they see that these effects are not all in the future but that it is happening right now, and one of the places it’s happening is on the Maine coast.”
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s January/February 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.