Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Maine Lobsters: Endangered?

"Seventeenth-century settlers and fishermen fed lobsters to hogs and servants, pitch-forked them into fields as fertilizer, and used lobster flesh as bait to catch the more desirable striped bass, or to bait eelpots."
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

As summer nears, people all over New England, including many tourists, will begin seeking out Lobster Rolls. At its most basic, it is a hot dog roll filled with chunks of lobster, however, you will find much diversity at the various restaurants which serve them. Maybe it has melted butter or mayonnaise, or maybe lettuce and celery. Everyone has their preference. In the near future though, lobster rolls might start being less common, as well as more expensive. In fact, all lobster dishes might meet this same fate.

".., lobster was redefined as marketable and targeted intensively beginning around 1830."
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

At the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), I attended a special session presented by the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative on Maine Lobster from Trap to Table. One of the main panelists was Carl Wilson, the lead Lobster Biologist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and he stated that for about the last thirty years, lobster landings in Maine have been increasing, after about fifty years of stable numbers. The warming of the waters has contributed to a boom in the lobster population, and landings have essentially doubled in the last 5-7 years. For Maine, the lobster industry is vital, with about 4,500 active lobstermen and 2 million lobster traps. and occupies 70% of the value of all Maine fisheries.

"The first sign of decline came in 1812, when voters in Provincetown, Massachusetts, alarmed by the depletion of local stocks, convinced the state legislature to limit lobstering in those waters to Massachusetts residents."
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

However, that could all be changing. A recent University of Maine survey, the American Lobster Settlement Index, covering 11 locations in the Gulf of Maine, seems to indicate that the population of baby lobsters has declined, less than 50% of what existed in 2007. The warming temperatures, which have led to an increased in landings, may also be partially responsible for this decline, though the reasons are probably multiple and still not fully understood. The Maine Department of Marine Resources though does not believe the decline is due to overfishing. Lobstermen might start seeing decreased landings as early as 2016.

"By the 1870s laments about the future of lobsters had become commonplace. In 1872 W. L. Faxon wrote to Massachusetts’ fish commissioners that “this valuable crustacean has been pretty closely fished in Massachusetts waters for the last ten years, and the value of the catch is decreasing yearly and rapidly.”
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

We must remember that this is more of a potential warning than a definitive danger. It is an area of potential concern which must be studied in greater detail, and steps will need to be taken to address the problem. We also need to more fully understand the reasons for the decline in baby lobsters, especially if it is not due to overfishing. This also presents an excellent cautionary tale, showing that even with record landings, matters can change fairly quickly if we are not alert to potential issues.

"Nevertheless, conservation laws of every stripe were routinely ignored by Canadian and New England fishermen during the 1870s and 1880s, as lobster stocks continued to shrink."
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

With seafood sustainability, we must be ever vigilant and cannot stop assessing and studying stock levels, even when it seems levels are highly positive. Seafood populations are subject to many variables, and not all of them are within our control. We must do our best to ensure their sustainability and future growth, which means constant vigilance. The battle for sustainability will never end, though we may win a number of smaller conflicts.

"A generation of reckless harvesting during the middle of the nineteenth century had driven to its knees one of Maine’s most valuable fisheries,..."
--The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

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