STEVE TRAIN used to finish work at 1 p.m. At that time, Mr. Train, who worked as a lobster boat in Maine for over 30 years, didn’t have to travel far to find the critters. Now it sometimes ends closer to 4 p.m. Some lobsters are still close to shore, but rising temperatures have pushed many of them into deeper, colder waters that take longer to reach. It has become a guessing game where Mr. Train will find the creatures. “More of us are hunting all the time,” he says, sipping a mezcal margarita at Luke’s Lobster, a waterfront restaurant in Portland’s historic Old Harbor. This is where he moored his boat, sold his catch and, three or four days a week, stopped for lunch (often a lobster BLT, lobster roll or fried haddock bites). Lobster is more than a job, he says. “It’s a culture.”
Warming waters have done more than change lobster boat schedules: they have disrupted entire ecosystems, including the Gulf of Maine. The waters of the Gulf of Maine have warmed faster than 99% of the world’s ocean in the past 30 years. Experts attribute some of this to shifting currents. The effects of the Gulf Stream from the south intensified and began to restrict the flow of the Labrador Current, which carries cold water from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Maine. “The magnitude of the change is really going to depend on the magnitude of the water temperature changes,” says Kathy Mills, a researcher at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. So far, the heat has changed the patterns of the state’s two most profitable species, lobsters and clams, with some experts and industry professionals worrying about the potential for further population decline. Maine’s overall commercial landings grossed over $ 500 million last year, but sustaining those profits will require flexibility – at least, that means recognizing that the Gulf may look very different in the years to come.
Maine produces more fish and shellfish than any other state on the east coast, and that’s due in large part to its generous lobster harvest. The state’s harvest has increased six-fold from about 22 million pounds in 1988 to nearly 132 m in 2016. Since that peak, lobster landings have declined by more than a quarter. “We might see a recovery again,” says Bob Steneck, a marine scientist at the University of Maine. “But as you enter into a decline of so many years, it is concerning.”
Mr Steneck says researchers don’t know why Maine landings have fallen, and most experts say the population is – and likely will continue to be – robust, even as it continues to decline from its recent peaks . But given what happened in southern New England, some men in the industry are wary. Rhode Island and Connecticut have seen their lobster catches drop in recent decades. There the creatures did not reproduce well in the warmer waters and died. en masse shell disease, which studies have linked to rising temperatures.
Statewide, the 2020 soft-shell clam harvest was still the second largest – accounting for 3% of the state’s commercial landings – but their numbers have also declined. Predators like green crabs are doing well in global warming and have killed many soft shells. As a result, Chris Green, a clam who lives and works in Brunswick, has increasingly relied on hard shells, or “quahogs.” They did better in the warmer waters, and the harvest went from 17,265 pounds in 1964 to over 1.3 million pounds in 2017. “They transported our city for three years,” Mr. Green says, so let him dig his hoe in the mud. to take out another clam. He’s wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt to keep cool on an unusually hot October day (“That indicates where we’re headed,” he says).
Locals also took note of the different species of animals on the shore. Sightings of North Atlantic right whales have declined, as the mammal’s primary food source-calanus finmarchicus– died in warmer waters. Other heat-loving creatures, such as squid and black bass, which have appeared in greater numbers in the Gulf. The Portland Lobster Co. used to serve a salad with lightly seasoned local shrimp. Then the Maine fishery collapsed and the restaurant shut down. “There’s nothing else that comes close to Maine shrimp,” said chief executive Ethan Morgan, insisting the state product was sweeter and had a “good shot.” He still offers shrimp, but only in fried form. “It’s more of a container for the sauce you use,” Morgan admits.
Ecosystems regularly absorb changes and humans can adapt to the changes. Ms. Mills recognizes that transformation does not mean disaster. “We have seen fisheries undergo changes in the past,” she says. To diversify his lobster fishing income, Mr. Train grows kelp and scallops. Mr Green hopes to start farming clams as a supplement to his wild catch and, in part, as a relief if a harsh winter kills the clams he depends on. The Portland Lobster Co. offers dishes with local catches as often as possible. But few people come to Maine for the dogfish, and Mr. Morgan laments that the specialties made with it haven’t landed well with customers. ■
Correction (November 8, 2021): The right panel of the graph referred to soft-shell crabs rather than clams. Apologies.
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Considering the lobster”