As Maine’s coastal waters warm, lobstermen look to new fisheries for stable future

Fred Bever | Maine Public
Fred Bever | Maine Public
Jeff Putnam, a Chebeague Island lobsterman who has a side line in oysters, is seen in this in 2018 file photo.
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The worst-case scenario would knock the Maine harvest down to levels seen back in the late 1990s or early 2000s — still better than in earlier decades, but nowhere near the monster hauls of the past 10 years.
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In 30 years, the Gulf of Maine will have been transformed by climate change. Its waters will inexorably grow warmer, and the species that flourish there will be those that can adapt. The same might be said for the Mainers who make their living from the sea. The future of the state’s marine economy may well belong to those who can adapt.

Lobsterman Jeff Putnam of Chebeague Island established the Sandy Point oyster farm to add a new revenue stream to his business and, he said, provide future options for his children.

“Hopefully, the lobster resource will still be strong when they grow up, and that will be there and that will be an option, but there’s certainly no guarantee that’s the case,” he said. “So I wanted to show them there is another way to make a living.”

That puts him in a small but growing group of lobstermen trying out new ways to preserve a career and culture amid change that scientists say is well underway in the Gulf of Maine.

[Deep Gulf of Maine has been warming twice as fast as the surface, study finds]

Researchers say warming water temperatures projected over the next 30 years could reduce the gulf’s lobster population by as much as 62 percent as it shifts north to cooler waters.

That worst-case scenario would knock the Maine harvest down to levels seen back in the late 1990s or early 2000s — still better than in earlier decades, but nowhere near the monster hauls of the past 10 years.

And it’s not just lobster that will be edging out of the picture.

“We expect to see quite substantial declines in a number of groundfish species like cod, haddock, pollock. So the species that have typically formed the base of many of our fisheries in this region,” said Kathy Mills, a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Mills is modeling what will happen to more than 50 Atlantic marine species in the gulf by 2055 — and what that could mean for ports up and down the coast — from Point Judith, Rhode Island, to Stonington, Maine.

“And how that relates to their current dependence on fisheries,” she said. “What are they currently harvesting? How will they be affected by these changes? And, also, what new species might be moving in that provide new opportunities in the future?”

Take Stonington, the unrivaled king of the lobster boom. The port’s 250-plus fishermen this decade routinely brought in more than $40 million worth per year. Mills said early runs of her models predict that the lobster population near Stonington could drop off by some 20 percent. Other fisheries, such as herring and halibut, will also decline. And, assuming the lobstermen stick to their habitual ways of fishing, profits could fall by more than half.

That could lead to exits from the fishing business, consolidation and financial disaster for fishermen with big loans on their boats. But there will be other opportunities, as more southerly species follow the warming temperatures up the coast.

“Black sea bass and squid, those are consistently increasing,” Mills said. “Scup, butterfish and potentially some of the crab species, so like rock crabs for example.”

[2018 was one of the hottest years on record — and this year could be even hotter]

Warming waters are also expected to expand the range of some aquaculture crops, including oysters and quahogs — although problematic predators such as the invasive green crab are benefited as well.

Mills said that if fishing communities such as Stonington play it right and aggressively adapt to the ecosystem shifts, profits, in many cases, can stay near the levels seen through the boom years this decade. And some lobstermen in Stonington are already on board.

“So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about for quite a few years is squid,” Stonington lobsterman Genevieve McDonald said.

McDonald said that back in 2012, when the gulf hit new records for warm temperatures, longfin squid suddenly turned up in abundance. So now she is thinking about how to take advantage of that — and about what type of gear and infrastructure she would need to catch squid and get them to market.

McDonald said her husband’s family still has an ice-house they once used for preserving groundfish, such as cod, back before those fisheries crashed.

“You actually might be going back to what will, at that point, be historical knowledge,” she said. “And so when your talking about black sea bass or squid, you’re no longer dealing with a live product, so you go back to icing fish and shipping them to New York or Boston.”

Another key issue is getting permission to fish for squid, sea bass and other emerging species. In federal waters, three miles and more for offshore fisheries are ruled by federal quotas, and it may be difficult to get Rhode Island, for instance, to give up quota so that Mainers can capture a new share of squid. McDonald, who is also a state representative on the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, said Maine fishermen should first focus on inshore waters and encourage state regulators to start designing regulations for emerging fisheries.

“Because it’s not your grandfather’s fishery anymore. We’re really hitting a point where if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to be involved in management and you’re going to have to know what’s coming,” McDonald said.

[Susan Collins: Ignoring climate change is ‘simply not a solution’]

But while lobster harvesters are thinking ahead, many remain focused on the fishery they know. And Carla Guenther, chief scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, cautioned that all the hype about long-term lobster decline is leaving some fishermen feeling helpless.

“Just pounding in the press about how climate change is going to threaten the lobster fishery, it’s paralyzing,” Guenther said. “For these guys, it’s like getting a diagnosis that your kid has cancer.”

Still, she notes that fishermen in general are natural entrepreneurs, and adept at going after different species when necessary. Right out her dockside window she said that lobstermen re-rig their boats to take advantage of the area’s growing scallop fishery.

“There are successes, there are diversification options,” she said. “Is it going to be for all 4,500 lobster license holders? No. But we’ve got to start thinking [of] something. And as long as we’re thinking creatively about how we can achieve diversification that’s going to be what we survive on.”

Putnam, the Chebeague lobsterman experimenting with oysters, is firmly, if cautiously, on that path.

“I don’t plan to expand too much with just oysters. I plan to look into the kelp business a little bit.”

And, Putnam said, he’ll keep on lobstering full time, year round.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

Related: The Maine lobster industry


 



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