What Does the Future Hold for Maine’s Lobster Industry?
This episode of Maine Policy Matters covers an article by James and Ann Acheson entitled “What Does the Future Hold for Maine’s Lobster Industry?” which explores problems the industry faces including shell disease, climate change, increased regulations to protect right whales, and economic uncertainty. The article also focuses on several approaches that could help protect the lobster industry, including enacting lower trap limits, expanding markets for live and processed lobster, and increasing in-state processing capacity. This article was published in volume 29, number 2, of Maine Policy Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Policy Center.
Looking for more information about lobster industry issues from the perspective of US and Canadian researchers? Tune in to this episode of Maine Policy Matters to learn more.
This is the Maine Policy Matters podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. I am Eric Miller, research associate at the Center. On each episode of Maine Policy Matters, we discuss public policy issues relevant to the state of Maine.
Today, we will be covering James and Ann Acheson’s article entitled “What Does the Future Hold for Maine’s Lobster Industry?”, which covers problems the industry faces that threaten its future, including shell disease, climate change, increased regulations to protect right whales, and economic uncertainty. They also focus on several approaches that could help protect the lobster industry, including enacting lower trap limits, expanding markets for live and processed lobster, and increasing in-state processing capacity. This article was published in volume 29, number 2, of Maine Policy Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Policy Center.
James, who went by “Jim”, was an eminent, internationally recognized scholar, whose work transcended disciplinary boundaries, including anthropology, economics, biology, public policy, and natural resource management. He received three National Science Foundation grants and authored over 90 articles in professional journals, along with five books, including The Lobster Gangs of Maine (1988) and Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry (2004). This episode is dedicated to Jim’s life and the work he accomplished.
After briefly summarizing the article, we will speak with Rick Wahle, Patrice McCarron, and Geoff Irvine about what has been happening in the lobster industry in the two years since the article was published. Rick Wahle is a professor in the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences and the director of the Lobster Institute at University of Maine. Patrice McCarron is the executive director at Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the president of Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance. Geoff Irvine is the Executive Director of The Lobster Council of Canada.
Lobster is the most valuable fishery in the country and most lobsters landed in the United States are caught in Maine. Lobsters have been an important food source for New Englanders since early Colonial times and for Indigenous peoples before.
In more recent years, overall lobster landings were worth $485.4 million dollars in 2019. The Maine lobster fishery is one of the world’s most successful fisheries with a high of 132.5 million pounds being caught in 2016. From 2018-2019, catches declined but still remained over 100 million pounds each year, playing a significant role in Maine’s economy.
Despite the relative success of the industry, it may face increasing problems in the future.
When their article was published in 2020, Jim and Ann Acheson named shell disease; climate change; North Atlantic Right whales; and markets, tariffs, and other economic matters as the four major problems facing the lobster industry.
Epizootic shell disease produces unsightly pits, growths, and lesions so that the affected lobsters cannot be sold as high-quality dinner lobsters. Shell disease has had a small effect on Maine’s lobsters to date, but has had disastrous effects on catches in Rhode Island waters. Between 2008 and 2013, an estimated 30% of Rhode Island fishermen were put out of business and others faced severely reduced incomes.
Climatic change due to an increase in atmospheric warming has led to increased storms, retreating ice, and rising sea levels that have caused lobsters in Maine waters to shift to colder Canadian waters. Lobster industry advocates do say that lobster can be caught all along the Maine coast despite this observation in the general movement north. Changes in herring movements leading to large schools of herring seeking cooler and deeper waters is leading to a scarcity of a major bait source in Maine waters. All of the ecological complexities regarding climatic change in the Gulf of Maine are something that researchers are continuing to understand.
The lobster industry’s problems with right whales began in 1996 when Max Strahan, who had petitioned the federal government to list the spotted owl as an endangered species in the Pacific Northwest, sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under the Endangered Species Act to prevent whales from being killed by lobster gear. In a different suit brought to court in 2020 by conservation organizations, the federal judge hearing the case ruled in their favor and found that the federal government was not doing enough to protect right whales from being entangled in lobster fishing gear. Fishermen feel they are being unfairly targeted because most whales are killed by ship strikes, and the proposed rules do nothing to curb ship strikes. Environmentalists argue the law is still not being enforced and that whales are still being killed by lobster gear. The Maine lobster industry believes its whale protection plan is not being given enough credit for reducing risk to the whales. The latest federal omnibus spending bill included a 6 year pause on new whale regulations while funding research as well as innovative fishing gear development which has been celebrated by the lobster industry and criticized by some environmental groups.
Lobster fishermen have faced economic problems for a number of years, which they describe as a cost/price squeeze. Between 2003 and 2013, the cost of bait increased 500 percent in response to reductions in the quota fishermen are allowed to catch. Other costs to fishermen have also skyrocketed. Fuel prices increased from $1.50 per gallon in 2002 to $5.00 per gallon in 2010. Prices declined in 2020, but increased again in May of 2022 to peak at $6.43 per gallon for diesel before lowering to the mid to low $5 per gallon mark later in 2022 according to the US Energy Information Administration. A new 36-foot lobster boat, which might have cost $125,000 in 1998, can cost upwards of $400,000 in 2020. The decline in revenue combined with markedly higher costs has put many fishermen in precarious financial straits. An economic study points out that there have recently been large year-to-year swings in lobster prices, quantities, and revenue. In 2020, the market for lobsters was reduced again by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only had the Asian market already been shrinking due to the Chinese- American trade wars, but the European market also contracted due to the pandemic.
Jim and Ann Acheson detail hope for the future in the face of these industry problems, including trap limits that would reduce costs for bait, fuel, and traps, while also reducing the number of lines in the water which can aid the right whale problem. Lobster marketing and expansion of local processing capability can also increase lobster sales and increase income to fishermen, dealers, and others in the industry.
Now 2 years after the Achesons’ article, the Maine lobster industry continues to face challenges outlined in this piece and new ones as well. For example, the recent suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council led to a pause in purchasing Maine’s lobsters by some major retailers, such as Whole Foods. These retailers use these certificates as a primary guide for informing consumers about the sourcing of their seafood products. This move to stop buying Maine’s lobsters was criticized by Senators Collins and King, Representatives Pingree and Golden, as well as Governor Mills.
What follows here is a response from “the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — along with the state’s governor, Janet Mills, sharply criticized the decision to stop buying Maine lobster.
“We are disappointed by Whole Foods’ decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine’s coast,”
Now that we have covered the Achesons’ arguments, we will move into our panel discussion about their article. We have with us today Rick Wahle, Patrice McCarron, and Geoff Irvine about some of these issues and what the future might hold.
Eric Miller: All righty. Thank you all for joining us today. So to each of you, how does the lobster industry most significantly affect the economic and environmental wellbeing of coastal communities? Our local impacts of Maine s and Atlantic Canada’s lobster industries, similar or quite different? We’ll start with Patrice and Rick to cover Maine and round out with Geoff’s Canadian perspective.
Patrice McCarron: Great. Well, I’ll kick us off from Maine’s perspective. I think it would be impossible to overstate the economic importance of the Maine lobster industry to the state of Maine . We are uniquely structured here in that we have an owner operator business model. So every vessel in Maine is owned and operated by the captain.
So the state license is about 4,800 people, which means those are 4,800 small businesses. They’re located. In our rural communities. So all of the money that we earn which is, you know, between 500 and 750 million a year annually, direct at the dock is spent locally. So in most coastal communities, the first dollar in those communities is often a lobster dollar.
So if we didn’t have those lobster dollars we wouldn’t have economic, economic opportunity. We wouldn’t have a good tax base, we wouldn’t have kids in school. So it really is the foundation of, of the coast for the state of Maine .
Geoff Irvine: Yep– well, I’m delighted to be here with you to have this discussion. We’re so linked in terms of our lobster sector in North America. So we work together on everything. So it’s the same in inland Canada and Quebec, Eastern Canada. There are literally hundreds of communities that rely on the lobster sector. I think I did, I did a bit of research on, there are 329 ports in Atlantic Canada, and 174 of them have the landed value of over a million dollars per port.
So that’s a dramatic impact. that’s on the harvesting side. On the shoreside sector, it’s also extremely important. We have literally hundreds of lobster plants in those hundreds of communities. The landed value in 2021 was over $2 billion. So that’s the money in the pockets of harvesters to pay, you know, to run their businesses, but with some profit at the end of it.
And for the exporters over 3 billion in export value. So by far the most important seafood sector in Canada. And you asked about the environmental well being. It’s a kind of a constant battle between the economic value and the environmental impact of the sector. which we, we all work on every day to try to mitigate, but certainly the seafood sector and the lobster sector, you know, provides some negative environmental impacts.
But I think everybody in the sector works hard to mitigate those.
Richard Wahle: Great. Well, and I’ll just follow on Patrice here too. And first I just want to say this is such a great opportunity to bring Patrice and Geoff together from both sides of the border. And to celebrate Jim Acheson’s contribution to sort of the human side of lobster science and the lobster world.
But to get to your question, Eric you know, Patrice said it well, and I’ll just paraphrase: the American lobster, again, is the most valuable single species fishery for both countries. And you know, 90% of the US harvest value comes from, from the Gulf of Maine, and about 80% comes from Maine itself. So Maine is really sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to the US side. And in any case, you know, while just the landed value of lobsters comprises about 1 to 2% of Maine’s GDP, that’s not counting the number of other industries that really depend on this fishery that would really inflate that GDP contribution. I’m talking about, you know, everything from trap makers, boat builders, the restaurant industry, tourism, and you can go on. It’s just a really important part of Maine ‘s economy, but to our national fisheries, and a really important international trade item as well.
Eric Miller: Yeah. Thank you all for, for your various perspectives on the greater context of the lobster industry in the North Atlantic area. And Jim and Ann in their article do note and comment the yeah, the lobster industry on how they jointly manage sustainable harvesting.
But there have been increasing concerns and, and discussion surrounding the practices. And we’ll get into those a little bit further. And then climate change is on the horizon as well as external environmental threats. So given the recent threat developments in cost of operations and relatively lower market price of lobster, how are fishermen with smaller boats and nearshore operations feeling about the future of the lobster industry and how their long-term business viability compared with fishermen who have larger boats and fish 50 plus miles offshore?
How have relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions and changes in overseas markets changed this?
Patrice McCarron: I guess I can jump in again for Maine. You know, the lobster fisheries are wild-caught fisheries. So anybody who is a commercial fisherman always knows you’re sort of at nature’s whim. You never know how much you’re gonna catch.
Lobster fisheries are not quota based fisheries, so it’s survival of the fittest, you know, the most skilled fishermen is gonna bring in the biggest catch. But like you say, there’s a lot in terms of the cost formula that fishermen cannot control. So, you know, year after year, the boat price might be really low or it might be really high.
In 2021 we had a record boat price. A lot of money. Input costs were high, but boat price was actually higher than that, and it was a profitable year. 2022, just a year later, the boat price has been about half of what we saw in 2021. And input costs for the business have skyrocketed even further.
So it’s a very unpredictable business year to year. I think anybody who fishes is by nature somewhat optimistic because you have to be crafty to make ends meet. You have to be a skilled fisherman and a skilled business person. You have to know when to set out your gear. You have to know when to spend time on the water, when you’re gonna maximize your catch.
And I think, you know, for the harvesters in Maine they’ve, they’ve gotten really good with that. What’s difficult for our fleet is that it’s very diverse. So you’re asking about boats that fish beyond 50 miles from shore. We don’t actually have that in Maine. We’re an area-based fishery, so we have a state waters only fishery that takes place between zero and three miles from shore, and those are our smallest vessels and they can be very vulnerable.
There’s not a lot of wiggle room in that business model. Our larger vessels, you know, we have a handful of boats that would be in the 50 foot range, but we’re typically like 35 to 42, 45 feet long. So again, they’re not super big boats. There’s a lot of unpredictability. Unit costs are high.
But I think over time guys just figure out a way to make it work. They’ll adjust their strategy on the fly, and they learn how to put money in the bank in a year like 2021 too. This year, 2022, where, where profits are lower. So there are a lot of threats, there’s a lot of anxiety, there is a lot of fear about the future, but I would just say fishing’s in their blood and they’re gonna go and they’re gonna hope for the best and they’re just going to be as flexible and innovative as they can to stay in this business.
And so far, so good. People are still here.
Geoff Irvine: Sure. I mean, it’s very much the same here, although we do have a significant number of in certain parts of the area, Southwest New Brunswick and Southwest Nova Scotia, there is a more mid-shore offshore component. But really the profitability and the business model really depends on how old you are when you got in, what your costs are.
So new entrants are finding it very difficult. But, I would argue a bit about low prices. We’ve really, since 2012, even this year, we’ve been on an increase of shore prices for 10 years. And it’s been really very good for many years. 2021, as Patrice said, was an incredible year.
Probably the gilded age of lobster, but also the last part of 2020. As soon as the pandemic started to snap back, and really the first half of 2022, our prices, shore prices didn’t start to change here until the end of June. Last year the fall has been more difficult, but this winter our prices are back up, you know, to fairly decent, decent shore prices.
So, you know, if you look at the 10 year trend, we’ve seen nothing but increasing prices every year. And also in the market we’ve done a lot of research that shows that 75 to 80% of the export value goes back to the harvester. Very consistently, year in and year out, and just shows you how kind of healthy the industry is.
But it’s challenging. And the inputs, I think Jim Acheson calls it the cost price squeeze. And that’s a reality the harvesters have because just because their costs go up doesn’t mean they can charge more because the port price is the port price. And they can’t just say, no, we need more today.
It doesn’t work that way. So it’s kind of unfair. But in terms of covid pandemic for the lobster industry was the best thing that ever happened in terms of economic impact. It’s a crass way of putting it, but we’ve never seen a better market for lobster. And so as it adjusts outta the pandemic we’re getting more back to sort of where we were in 2019, which was a very strong market as well.
I just looked at the export numbers and 22 is gonna be a big year again, so just gotta keep, keep pushing it and and hope we stay on that trajectory.
Richard Wahle: And Eric, I might just add, and I realize this isn’t my wheelhouse, but I’ll only put a little bit of a historical perspective on this.
Pulling from the landings graph that Jim has in his paper there, that just shows, you know, for so long, from the 1880s to the 1980s landings almost rock solid with some, you know, dips during the 1920s and thirties, you know, at least I’m speaking for Maine here,roughly landing about 20 million pounds a year.
And that started dramatically changing in the late 1980s, 1990s. And by about 2016Maine was harvesting about six times more than it had been in the 1980s. And while we’ve fallen off that a bit, the value has been maintained although there’s been fluctuations we’ve seen with the coming in and out of the covid years.
But I just want to make the point that there’s really a whole generation of fishermen here who’ve known nothing other than a booming fishery. And a lot of their elders have been a lot more conservative about, you know, investing in bigger boats and so forth.
But this younger generation have gone whole hog into big boats and venturing offshore, having a couple sternmen. And so I think there’s a concern out there that if things start falling off and costs start becoming unsustainable and with the new whale regulations, that some of these fishermen may be overcapitalized and unable to sustain their businesses at that scale.
I’d be interested in Patrice’s or Geoff’s perspective on that.
Patrice McCarron: Yeah, I do think that the business model has evolved. I’ve been with the Lobster Men’s Association for 23 years, and from day one I’ve heard from the older lobstermen that the young guys are overcapitalized and they’re in for a rude awakening.
And, you know, at least for this last quarter of a century that hasn’t borne itself out. And there have been some economic investigations that are showing that really the most profitable sector of the industry has been this sort of nearshore. Federal waters fishery where you’re carrying more crew because you’re generating overall a lot more income.
And I think as we broach the new whale regulations, those are the vessels that have more operating capital. They have more of an ability to invest into high tech more expensive gear. And they may actually prove to be more resilient to some of the places where this management model is shifting.
Where you have a small vessel with a single operator, your ability to adapt is pretty limited. Your business model keeps your footprint really small. It keeps you close to shore. You have very small capital flow. And it does really limit your ability to adapt. So that’s one of the things that we’ve really been advocating for through the association, is that we have to recognize that our fleet is very diverse, and it is the combined diversity of that fleet from our small insure boats, our medi and then our larger boats.
That together is what makes this fishery really, really work. And to lose any segment of that would really prove to be devastating. So, you know, I don’t know, the jury’s still out in terms of the history that’s yet to be written, but I guess I’m a little bit skeptical about the fact that people are overcapitalized because I think that they have really created a modern business model that has proven very, very effective for them at least so far.
Geoff Irvine: Yeah, I could add from the Canadian perspective something I forgot to mention, and that is that we have very specific defined seasons here. So in virtually three quarters of the fishery, it’s a two month season. So you’re either fishing May and June, or you’re fishing September and October. and that’s the whole Gulf of St. Lawrence, that’s all of Newfoundland, all of Quebec, all of Cape Bratton, all of Eastern Nova Scotia. so those harvesters that have a lobster license generally have another job or a business. and we have this, the magic in Canada of the employment insurance program that is a part of our social safety network where harvesters have the ability to have two claims per year because they’re harvesters.
So you know, the reality of the business is a little different when you have that kind of support. But, but you know, if you have a two month season, you kind of need it. And we’ve set our fishery up to be that.
Patrice McCarron: Yeah, I think another really noteworthy difference–there’s so many similarities between the US and Canadian lobster fisheries, but there are some divergences on the business model–in Maine there’s no cost to entry.
So the cost to get into the fishery in Maine is you find somebody to apprentice with and then you sort of buy into the fishery at the level that makes sense for how you want to prosecute the fishery. And you start with a low number of traps and you build up. So in Maine , you can get a skiff, you can get used traps, you can build your way through boats. In Canada there’s actually a cost to entry to actually purchase the license. So the barrier of entry in Canada is significantly higher, is a much higher financial output to get in.
We’ve tried to keep Maine sort of more of the traditional model where you can work your way in and kind of not have a model where you need, you know, a big pot of money to actually gain access to the fishery and that that really differentiates some of the profit margins and how the fisheries actually operate.
Geoff Irvine: Yeah. And, and that, I guess, the difference as well is that then you can’t sell your license when you want to get out. So here you do have to buy your license, but then you can sell it when you retire. It’s all part of the business calculation.
Eric Miller: These are fascinating differences in how people approach their industry.
And I am curious about how far offshore are these bigger boats venturing? Because you mentioned, most of them stay with zero to three miles offshore, as well as kind of, if you have an idea of the share of the fishermen that have chosen this more. I don’t know if a more capitalized business model and how noticeable that is compared to 10, 20 years ago.
Patrice McCarron: Yeah, so for Maine, the state actually regulates state waters, which are zero to three miles. So every harvester in Maine has a state permit. So we issue the state of Maine issues about 4,800 of those, of that population. just over 20% also get a federal permit from the federal government. So to cross over the three mile line, that’s federal waters, you need to be permitted by the federal government.
You do actually need to purchase that license. There’s a limited number of those, so they have to be transferred from person to person. And depending on the market, those have been as high as 40, $50,000 for the permit. And they’re sort of sliding back to, you know, $15,000 right now. So we in Maine have about 1300 federal permit holders.
They tend to fish through the winter months. They tend to be on the boats that would be over 40 feet edging up 50 feet or above. Definitely a higher operating cost, but that allows them to kind of nudge over a little bit into the Canadian model where you’re getting to land lobster during the wintertime when it’s a harder shell lobster, a higher yield lobster, typically a higher price lobster.
So, the fewer boats were operating offshore, although it costs more to do that, the cost that you’re earning for each lobster that you land tends to be higher and does support that business. I think the big difference between 20 years ago and now is that most of those boats would come in for the summer and then go offshore in the winter.Now a lot of boats strictly fish in federal waters, and if they do come into state waters, they bring a smaller proportion of their gear, so they’ve just sort of shifted away and there’s more of a separation. It’s not, you know, exclusive but less crossover between those federal vessels and those state vessels because the state only tend to be smaller, smaller traps, smaller gangs of gear.
And the big boats would have the chance to sort of overwhelm their traps, their boats, their gear. So they’ve been able to make their living by staying more exclusively in federal waters, which is a big shift.
Eric Miller: All right. This is an excellent transition into the next question, which is more environmental and climate related.
And this change in behavior I find fascinating among lobstermen. How has warming waters and ocean acidification due to climate change affected current lobster stock and longer term confidence in the fishery? Is there increasing concern regarding the ecological condition and changing patterns of the Gulf of Maine in general?
Rick, if you don’t mind starting us off.
Richard Wahle: Sure, I’d be happy to start that off. And it’s a big question. Well, you know climate change has certainly played a really important role in the past decades. And we’re really seeing its signature on the shifting lobster stocks. and just to sort of set the stage, it’s important to realize that there’s a really,striking temperature gradient from the northeast to the southwest along our coastline. So, you know, Bay of Fundy and eastern Maine are much colder during the summer than say, southern New England. But all these areas have been warming at about roughly the same rate as a result of climate change. But whereas the southern New England was sort of well into the lobster comfort zone, temperature-wise, if you will, early in that time, as things got warmer, the adverse effects of warmer temperatures were really taking their toll.
We started to see it in the form of mass mortalities in Long Island Sound that knocked the stock down by 75%. It’s never really recovered from that. We saw shell disease rear its ugly head. Back in the late nineties, early 2000s, prevalence levels went up to like 35% and have just pretty much stayed there ever since and started spreading to the north. And that really knocked back the southern New England stock seriously.
But at the other end of the range, in the Bay of Fundy and eastern Maine, we saw that that same warming was starting to bring the lobster nursery habitats into the comfort zone of the lobster. And it started to trigger this wave of larval settlement into nursery areas that were otherwise at very low population densities, or virtually vacant great looking habitat, but nobody’s home. That all changed in the early 2000s, and on up to, to now. And it elevated, it ended up elevating the fishery to its current status now as the most valuable single fishery in New England.
In the US we’re really seeing that eastern Maine area, that boom that we saw there really accounted for that dramatic shift. But I should also say it’s not just climate change. We also have been seeing the effects of depleting groundfish, and groundfish are an important predator in this system. This has been seen, you know, throughout the range, whether you’re talking Atlantic Canada or the US. People point their finger to the depletion of cod and certainly cod are an important predator. But really it’s the entire assemblage of groundfish that include flatfish, you know, flounder, halibut, goose fish or monk fish as they’re usually called, other bottom dwelling or near bottom fish that have been widely depleted since the 1970s, eighties.
And so that predator release only acted to favor lobsters. And in fact, you know, I remember talking to fishermen back in the nineties already who were saying, you know, we’re catching lobsters in places we’ve never seen ’em before. Way out in the wide open. Well, there weren’t any predators there anymore, or at least the big ones that really take their toll on the small lobsters.
Groundfish were severely depleted, so it’s a combination I think we can say the boom was the result of the joint effects of both the favorable effects of warming temperatures, but also the depletion of ground fish. And of course, taking the bigger geographic perspective and including Atlantic Canada, you know, we’re seeing this eastward shift of the center of the population.
And definitely southern Gulf of St. Lawrence has been seeing an increasing wave of lobsters and even Nova Scotia and the Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence is seeing higher landings than they’ve ever seen before. So there’s definitely this northward shift as a consequence of warming climate and depleted pressure, predators.
Eric Miller: It’s fascinating how ecological systems function in that way and how connections ecologically just move in this truly dynamic manner. I mean, you often hear warming waters, you hear moving lobster so you kind of scratch your head when you see the stocks being caught at this level.
But there you have it. The predation being decreased because this was happening due to climate change. So we’ve got some almost increasing foot Northern fishery news. And are there reasons that those of us in the southern part of the fishery are people more nervous?
Patrice McCarron: Yeah, so, so I can jump in. , you know, I think overall from a fisherman’s perspective, climate change has been positive, whether you fish in downeast Maine or southern Maine, I think one of the confusing things about the center of abundance shifting north doesn’t necessarily mean that things have crashed below.
So, you know, as Rick described in southern New England, that sort of a different oceanographic regime south of Cape Cod, a different system. And, we did see a crash, and that is concerning. But the Gulf of Maine is its own sort of semi enclosed system and we have not seen that crash. We’ve seen landings in southern Maine on a very, very slow increase, above flat, but certainly not on a decline other than the inter-annual variability.
We saw in the late nineties and the early 2000s, mid-coast Maine is where the center of abundance had really blossomed, where it had been in Casco Bay prior to that, and then more recently in downeast Maine. And we’re seeing those rises in Canada. But nobody should think that we’re not landing lobster in southern Maine or mid-coast Maine anymore.
The landings have really been robust and steady, and the resource remains very strong and people are optimistic about that. I think the other really encouraging thing that came out of the literature on climate change was a study that compared southern New England with the Gulf of Maine, and it found very specifically that the sustainability measures the stewardship practices that we have in the Gulf of Maine fishery, had they been implemented in southern New England, would’ve lessened that decline significantly.
So we can’t prevent climate change. We can’t prevent the impacts on the resource, but we certainly have a very robust conservation plan in place, which has provided a buffer. So if Mother Nature is going to provide conditions that are gonna see the lobster stock contract somewhat, we have sort of built in all the protections and that decline is going to be a lot less severe of a drop off than what they experienced in the southern Maine because we are protecting our baby lobsters and our oversized lobsters and our bycatch goes back alive.
And we just have a lot of really practical measures that I think really honor sort of the biology of the resource in a really practical way. And a lot of that stuff obviously translates up to Canada as well, so I think fishermen remain very optimistic. I think everybody is sort of bracing for some sort of softening of the landings over time.
You know, how severe those are gonna be. The jury’s out; models say different things, but everything is basically saying, you’re not gonna continue up here forever. But we feel like there is a business model if the landings do start to start to soften a little bit in the next few years. And we’ve seen little bits of that so far, but I don’t know, Geoff, probably you’re seeing similar but different things up in Canada, right?
Geoff Irvine: Yeah, no, very, very much similar. I mean, I was in Newfoundland a few months ago and I was, this is the first live lobster holding facility in Newfoundland. There hadn’t been one there. So that shows you how much more they’re landing in Newfoundland and Labrador than ever. The landings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cape Breton, eastern Nova Scotia all trending up. and in the southern part of the rain, southwest New Brunswick and southwest Nova. You know, there’s still a wonderful business model there, there’s still a great catch. But I mean, we’re seeing that the peak landings were 2016 and we’re seeing them kind of weaken off.
I mean, that’s a very recent history. but I think there’s, there’s definitely some concern about what the future holds. And as we talked about earlier, when you’re paying a million dollars for a license in LFA 34 and 500 grand for a boat that’s a big investment. And so this kind of thing keeps people up at night at times, thinking about what the future will hold.
So, I mean, it’s like Patrice said, it’s hard to know what it’s gonna look like, but I think there’s absolutely some concern in the southern part of the range and in the northern part sort of great enthusiasm and, and optimism. but as Patrice said, we also have very, very good harvest control rules in place.
And every LFA, if the stock goes down a certain amount. We have things that the harvesters can implement to adjust their catch, to adjust their effort to ensure that we keep the everything sustain.
Eric Miller: Fascinating. Rick, would you mind elaborating on for, for our listeners, the how vulnerable lobsters are to acidification where the science is there for that aspect of this issue?
Richard Wahle: Yeah. Well, the story on acidification is a relatively new and, and short one compared to our understanding of temperature effects. But, you know, it’s a topic that really only has gained some traction in, you know, 10, 15 years ago. And we’re starting to learn a lot across different species and taxa.
And with respect to lobsters and crabs some of the literature showing that, you know, these crustaceans are relatively resistant to acidification effects compared to, say, oysters and clams and so forth that are very vulnerable, especially at their earliest life stages when, you know, shells dissolve when on the mud flats, just as they’re settling.
So the concern is less for the American lobster in any case, is less focused on acidification effects or their adverse effects, as they are on the direct and indirect effects of warming temperatures. And, you know, even among crustaceans, that varies a bit because, as we look west to some of the Alaska crab fisheries, and their early life stages seem to be more vulnerable to those changes.
So but our American lobster for now looks like from the work,and the literature and some of the work that has been done by my colleagues suggest that there are mechanisms in place, physiological mechanisms, that can cope with these changes in acidification.
Eric Miller: Fascinating.
Thank you for that elaboration to go a little deeper on a notable consequence of climate change, mentioned by Jim and Ann Acheson in their article. As lobstermen south of Maine experienced economic hardships largely due to things like episodic shell disease. How much concern is there along the Maine coast about this specifically?
Are there any preventative or mitigating measures for this disease? And these two separate kind of larger capitalized federal waters, fishing, lobstermen, lobstering operations, and the smaller boats is one group more vulnerable to their share of lobster being affected by epizootic shell disease?
Patrice McCarron: I, yeah, I guess I. Yeah. so it’s not reached a crisis point for the Maine fishery. I mean, certainly that southern New England fishery that had pretty extreme warm water temperatures, I mean temperatures measured on bottom that were really outside a temperature where you would expect a lobster to survive at all is where we really saw that disease kick off.
And as Rick said, we saw it migrate into Maine. The state of Maine puts samplers on boats from May through the end of the year. They do the state waters fishery as well as the offshore fishery. And one of the things that they do record is the presence of epizootic shell disease. So we will, on a year to year basis, have little pockets in, you know, very small regions along the coast where we might see like, More lobsters than we would like to see.
But it tends to be female lobsters who are in the reproductive phase, who have not shed their shell in a few years. So there were a few years along the way where we saw it in newer shell lobster and that was very concerning and that was something that they really monitored to see. Is it something where the lobsters had the shell on for a long time and, and the dhell disease sort of has time to take effect, but they’ll ultimately shed it out?
Or are we gonna see it in this sort of new shell lobster, which represents the majority of the catch in Maine. And we really, we really didn’t see that trend. So, you know, you’ll get calls in the spring from a handful of lobstermen. You know, I just had, you know, a bunch of female lobsters with dhell disease. Immediately call the state of Maine, they immediately report that. I think it is an issue that’s elevated enough that if somebody sees an anomaly in their catch, they always call the state offering to send up samples. So from my perspective I have not seen anything that, that is just sort of like a really low level of sort of annoyance, but in a sector of the lobster stock that has had its shell for a long time is gonna mold out of that and not something that we’re really seeing sort of spread across the catch. So I think that translates into a pretty minimal economic impact on the fishery.
And, you know, something that much more rare we would hear in the offshore waters, like every once in a while, like a deep pocket of warm water, somebody might pull up a few again, a lobster that’s had its shell for a long time, a lobster that’s gonna mold out of that and not something that we’re really seeing spreading through what’s gonna be the majority of our catch those newer shell lobsters.
So I don’t know, Rick, if you’ve seen anything different than that in the data, but that seems to be the way that the trend has gone the last five years or so.
Richard Wahle: yeah. Yeah. I think you captured it pretty well there, Patrice. You know, the highest prevalence levels are essentially in the warmest places and also among the lobsters that hold onto their shells the longest.
So the warmest places are near shore, southern New England,. and we see, you know, the highest prevalence among the larger, you know, oversized lobsters, but especially, as Patrice said, the egg-bearing females that are holding onto their, their shells longer, their exoskeletons longer.
So but you know, once that the epizootic took off, it did start spreading northward and it did start penetrating Maine waters. It sort of wrapped around Cape Cod and into Massachusetts, you know, north of Cape Cod Bay. And it reached its tentacles into, you know, southwestern Maine, but seems to have more or less stabilized, as that pattern hasn’t changed a lot in, say, the past 10 years.
So but you know, with increasing warming you know, the suggestion is that we might see higher prevalence levels, but especially in southern New England, I mean, sorry, in southern Maine .
Eric Miller: Got it. Definitely something to keep our eyes on as the years go on. According to NOAA Fisheries, approximately 368 North Atlantic right whales are left after what they define as an unusual mortality event, which has occurred since 2017. As the recent passage of the omnibus spending bill here in the States included a six-year pause on federal whale regulations as well as funding for marine ecological research and fishing gear, technological development.
Can you all weigh in on the significance of this pause and US federal government investment in those research and technical technological development initiatives? Which research priorities do you all think are most important to fishermen as the North Atlantic right whale and the greater North Atlantic Marine ecosystem?
And what do you know and not know about this endangered species? and how is this debate playing out in Canada as well?
Patrice McCarron: That is a broad question.
Eric Miller: Yep. Yep. An an easy one here.
Patrice McCarron: I’ll kick it off. Yeah. I’ll kick it off. Maybe I’ll just answer a piece of it and we can sort of circle through and, and, and work our way through.
In terms of the pause that we got from the federal government, that’s truly historic and, you know, very, very meaningful for our fishery. The US Lobster fishery, we implemented whale protection measures in the nineties. We did a significant round of whale protection measures in 2009, another significant round in 2014.
And then in May of 2022, we did a brand new 60% risk reduction, you know, off of our revised baseline. So we’ve taken rope out of the water, we weakened rope. We’ve really expanded our gear marking. We now have closures on the books and Maine. So super high impact for our fishermen. The Maine fishery was scheduled to bring that 60% risk reduction all the way up to 90% risk reduction by 2024.
And that is controversial because the Maine fishery doesn’t really have a documented track record of entanglement. So a lot of the risk that we’re mitigating now in Maine is hypothetical risk. We know where some of the entanglements take place, we know what fisheries they come from, but for a lot, we don’t know.
When we look at rope that right whales are carrying, we can say it doesn’t really look like the rope that Maine fishermen use. We tend to fish a smaller diameter rope than some of the rope that comes off. So the Maine lobster fishery has really been advocating to kind of put the brakes on and have the federal government reanalyze the science.
We feel like they haven’t followed the law as prescribed by the Endangered Species Act. What the federal government has done in giving us our risk reduction goals is they’ve basically said, anytime, you know, we, we get to a decision point and our data are modeling, we’re just gonna pick the worst case scenario so that we make sure that the whales get the most protection possible.
But actually what the law requires is that the federal government examines scenarios that are reasonably certain to occur. So not things that are so far-fetched that they’ll never happen. So we feel like, you know, bringing us to a 90% risk reduction and ultimately we’re slated to do a 98% risk reduction is something that would have potentially marginal benefit to the whales, but would have devastating impacts on our fisheries.
So this pause allows us time to kind of dig into these models, look at the data that we’re using, really examine the implications of the assumptions. and I, and I’ll give you an example of why that matters. When the federal government did a forward population projection for right whales, they said, you know, how many right whales do we think we will have in the year 2050?
And when they used very conservative estimates of reproduction, they used 2010 to 2018 in every scenario. Even with closing the US Federal Fisheries, the right wheel population continued to decline if they simply used the full reproductive dataset. So the nineties through 2019, in every scenario projecting that population forward, the right wheel population basically doubled.
And so it, it, it begs the question, you know, which is it you took the worst 10 years on record, or the worst eight years on record for a set of data that is without trend? And for us, it, it, it doesn’t make any sense. You know, they didn’t really ask the question of, you know, well, is it likely that whales are gonna continue to, you know, have more success in reproduction?
And since then they have. so we feel like, you know, they’ve just made very bad assumptions that will harm the fishery. So this federal pause, Congress recognizes that there’s a lot of work to be done. They actually haven’t solved the problem, but they’ve given national marine fishery service in the fishing industry and the conservation community and all of the stakeholders time to come together and really dig through those questions and try to figure out, you know, what the right risk reduction would be for our fisheries so that we can hopefully have a functioning industry and save the right whales.
And in terms of the funding that was a really important piece of the pause. there’s a lot of money that’s gonna come in for right wheel monitoring and surveillance, so have a better idea of where, where right whales are. Models are now indicating that right whales will be even less frequent in the waters where Maine lobstermen fish and shifting more into Canadian waters and down to the southeast US in the winter.
So to really get a handle on where the whales are, like what are the, what are the fishing areas we really need to be prioritizing for management will be important. But there’s also a lot of money in there to continue to develop innovative gear solutions, which will include on-demand fishing without rope, as well as other modifications to a traditional fishing system that would pose less risk to whales, that would allow maybe a more flexible, viable business model for some of the, the smaller vessels in our fleet.
So there’s a lot of really, really important stuff in there. And it set a high bar for all of us. We have a lot of work to do over the next six years to try to get answers and hopefully size that management to really address the actual risks that the right whales are facing. So I guess I’ll, I’ll leave it at that.
Geoff Irvine: Thanks. So the whales effectively came to Canada in 2017 and we did not expect them. They didn’t tell us they were coming. So that is, that is when we had that particular terrible mortality event, which caused us to immediately figure out how we could continue fishing, crab, and lobster and avoid mortalities and, and entanglements.
So we brought in a whole suite of measures, the dynamic closure management system where we have over flights and things that monitor whales. So if we see a single right whale on the Gulf of Sale, Lawrence, we close nine grids for 15 days. And if another whale is cited, we close it for the whole season.
So we’ve invested millions of dollars in that system and it appears to be working mostly. We’ve also done a lot of things that Patrice talked about you know, removing gear and gear marking and, and all kinds of other things like that, that we hope will work. So the old fishing industry’s committed to it.
We know it’s vital to ensure market access to the US to everywhere else that cares about right whales. I mean, we have customers in Europe and Scandinavia in Asia who are constantly asking us, you know, where we are with these measures. So it’s important for the market.
And back to the challenges in Maine. We’ve always wondered why the Maine harvesters have been so impacted by these measures by NOAA because we like, like Patrice, know that there aren’t a lot of whales there when they’re fishing. So we could never understand that. And also, we buy half of Maine ‘s lobster in Canada.
Uh we’re your biggest customer. and so we need that lobster to keep our plants going in the summer and the fall. So we were, we’ve been very concerned about your industry, notwithstanding all of our close relations. So we were delighted to hear about the pause. and we’re delighted to hear about more research.
I think one big thing that Rick will probably talk about is some of the work that he’s gonna do with the new NNA lobster network, which will do some of that work. But no, we’re taking it very seriously and, and the new measures every year, the Federal Fisheries Minister adjusts the measures, and we expect her announcement to come out in the next few weeks for this coming year.
But the fishing industry here is committed to doing what it takes.
Richard Wahle: Yeah. Perfectly well, both of you did. And really, this pause brings more than 50 million to start to address these really important questions. And they go toward both lobster and right whales and the communities that depend on this fishery.
So, as Patrice said, this is an unprecedented opportunity to start to deal with these thorny issues. But I divide the challenges into short-term and long-term questions because certainly, you know, resolving the entanglement issue, area closures and so forth, understanding right whale migration patterns and so forth, tracking them around you know, fields of lobster gear are really urgent needs.
And also understanding the impact of the new regulations potentially on our coastal communities. All that’s really urgent to know, but, you know, a lot of these changes that are happening as a consequence of climate change and we’re gonna be seeing longer term decadal scale changes happening.
We’re already seeing them and it’s really important to start to understand the mechanisms behind them. And this is where you really have to sort of back up and, and take the broader geographic view that not only encompasses our two fisheries, the US and Canada fisheries, Atlantic Canada, and basically New England, but really pan back to the North Atlantic and start to understand what’s happening here.
And what’s really interesting is that some of these dramatic changes that have been happening pivot around 2010 when there was a dramatic regime shift in the Gulf of Maine. All of a sudden we started to see warmer Gulf Stream water moving into the Gulf of Maine. And that had food, web level effects.
And, let me just put that in a somewhat broader geographic perspective. You know, we have really two currents that merge right off our coast. There’s the Gulf Stream I just mentioned coming from the south with warm, salty, nutrient-poor water. And then we have the Labrador current coming from the Arctic, bringing really cold, nutrient-rich water, and it’s that Labrador current in the Scotian Shelf water that has really fueled the huge historic productivity that the Gulf of Maine is so well known for. And in recent years, and again, pivoting around 2010, we started to see the Gulf Stream waters play a more important role in influencing the productivity of the system. And that’s where we started to see things collapsing to some extent primary productivity. The phytoplankton that feed the zooplankton that right whales depend on as well as, you know, things like herring, and even cod larvae and sand lance.
All those forage fish are strongly affected by the abundance of these tiny crustaceans called copepods. And there’s a particular copepod called Calanus finmarchicus that seems to be a real keystone species here. And it’s the prime and preferred food source for the Atlantic right whale. So that shift in the distribution of Calanus finmarchicus and some of these other cold water zooplankton to the north has played a role in influencing the migration of the right whale to northern waters and more prevalently in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
So, we’ve just secured some additional funding from the National Science Foundation to start to look at what’s influencing these changes in the Labrador current and the Gulf Stream. And, they’re linked to the changes that are happening in the Arctic. And so the program that’s funding this is one of the National Science Foundation’s polar programs called “Navigating the New Arctic.” And it’s really the only project in that portfolio of grants that have been funded that’s looking at the effects of Arctic change at lower latitudes, at a lower latitude system. Most of those projects are looking at changes in the Arctic and the consequences in the Arctic. And here we’re looking at the lower latitude effects, but having those, that larger scale view allows us to build these predictive models that essentially give us the lead time, out decades refining those predictive models so we can better understand these linkages between the changing climate, shifting lobster distributions, and shifting and migrating right whales.
Eric Miller: Got it. Yeah. As a data person myself, there always seems to be a need for more. It’s great to see so many resources poured into learning more, which is absolutely necessary. If folks would like to learn more about the North Atlantic right whale, as much as we do know—their habitat range, how many we think are out there, the context in which some of these fatalities have occurred—is on the NOAA Fisheries website for you to learn more. They’ve got maps and tables. So as we’re closing out here on our hour, are there any other things that you, you all would like to share about the lobster industry that we haven’t already covered?
Next steps for policymaker, citizens, the lobster industry itself, we’ll start off with Geoff.
Geoff Irvine: keep eating lobster…
I mean we’ve got a myriad of challenges and issues that are based on the world getting more insular and market access challenges where we’re noticing it in all of the markets, the de-globalization of the world it’s more, more challenging to, to, to sell protein everywhere around the world.
So we spend a lot of time dealing with those market access issues. And I’m sure our friends, our people who are exporting lobster for Maine do the same. So that’s just a really high level matter that we’re not gonna solve today. But it’s something that is becoming more and more of a challenge, and that is worldwide sort of nationalism and market access sort of putting barriers up that, that I’m seeing every day.
Eric Miller: Patrice, would you like to go next?
Patrice McCarron: Sure. Yeah. I would echo Geoff’s suggestion like, eat, eat more lobster. I hope that people took away from this, the incredible sustainability practices in place in the US and Canadian lobster fisheries. They are virtually unmatched internationally.
These are quite literally the most sustainable fisheries in the world. You know, throughout time where fisheries have been depleted and overfished and stocks have crashed, you know, these fisheries have blossomed. You know, in part, mother nature has given us a hand. But really it would not have been possible without the incredible conservation practices in place in both countries.
And I hope people also understand the commitment that both countries have to North Atlantic right whale conservation, all of the fisheries, the shipping industry. The governments are really trying to get measures in place that will allow these, you know, incredible heritage, fisheries and traditions to continue, and conserve this incredible endangered species that is at risk.
And people should feel really good that the fisheries are in fact making changes, that they are actively continuing to improve what they’re doing. And people should feel proud to choose this product and not be confused by the media and wonder, you know, if they’re doing the right thing. Because so much time and energy has gone into really getting it right and really having an industry.
We hope that we’ll be handing off to the next generation proudly in both countries.
Richard Wahle: Great. Well, it seems fitting to sort of close this out with a little quote from Jim Acheson himself. And there’s this wonderful book he wrote in 1988 called The Lobster Gangs of Maine. And, you know, it’s close to my heart because he did a lot of his interviews in my home town of Bristol, Maine.
You know, he was an anthropologist, and so he studied the social systems of territoriality, and used the American lobster fisheries as his case study. So the very first words in that book were, “Hhigh risk and uncertainty in all parts of the world are the everyday lot of the fisherman.”
And, you know, I think we just reinforce that message with this podcast today. But I think we also take away a really strong message of the sustainability ethic of the participants in this fishery. They’re, essentially naturalists in the field every day. They’re seeing these changes happening. Their fishery is in their own backyard and it’s in their best interest to make it sustainable. So that sustainability ethic is, a conservation ethic, is in their blood and right whales are part of the ecosystem in which they live and want to see them continue to thrive. So it just means bringing people together to work on this project and problem.
Eric Miller: There are some excellent closing words there. Thank you all so much for joining us today, Patrice, Geoff, and Rick. And we will have you look forward to checking in hopefully with you all again sometime in the future.
All: Great, Eric. Wonderful. Thank you very much. Thanks Eric.
End of Interview
What you just heard was Rick Wahle’s, Patrice McCarron’s, and Geoff Irvine’s perspectives on the lobster industry as discussed by James Acheson and Ann Acheson in their article “What Does the Future Hold for Maine’s Lobster Industry?” Maine Policy Review is a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. For all citations for data provided in this episode, please refer to the original article in Maine Policy Review.
Special thanks to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine for sponsoring this episode of Maine Policy Matters. Since 1987, the Lobster Institute has been fostering collaboration and communication in support of a sustainable and profitable lobster industry in the Northeast United States and Canada as well as aiming to maximize the engagement of UMaine faculty and students with stakeholders in this iconic fishery.
The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka, and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, scriptwriters for Maine Policy Matters, and to Daniel Soucier, our production consultant.
In two weeks, we will be reading a summary of Jonathan Rubin et al.’s research on road salt in their report entitled, “Road Salt in Maine: An Assessment of Practices, Impacts and Safety”.
We would like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. You can find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases.
I am Eric Miller. Thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.