The Future of New England Seafood

Consider the Lobster Price: How Climate Change Could Affect Your Lobster Roll

In the midst of a lobster bait shortage, synthetic bait presents an alternative for lobstermen. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO.

Did you think we could finally put this year’s harsh winter behind us? Think again. The summer season has officially started, but it seems our lobster roll – New England’s famed summer seafood – is paying the price for the snowy winter…or at least we are paying the price for the lobster roll.

Lobsters are available in New England year round, but any New Englander will tell you that the true lobster season kicks-off in the summertime. This is when the sweeter, juicier soft shell lobsters, often known as “shedders,” undergo molting, a growth process during which the crustaceans shed their old, too-small shells and grow new, larger ones. After the molting process is complete, the lobsters then migrate closer inshore where they are readily available for lobstermen to haul up in their traps.

So far this season there have been numerous news stories on the increasing price of lobster. On average, lobster per pound prices are already $1 to $2 more expensive than last year’s, a trend that University of Maine researchers have attributed to lower ocean temperatures due to the past winter.

Ocean water temperature heavily influences the timing and frequency of the molting process, which in turn influences when lobsters are ready for harvest. Adult lobsters living in colder waters will typically only molt once a year and are known to have later molting periods compared to those in warmer waters. Since the harsh winter caused a drop in ocean temperatures, the lobster molting season in New England has been delayed, at least compared to recent years. This has resulted in a lower supply of lobsters and a slower, more expensive start to the summer lobster season.

As Dr. Bob Steneck from the University of Maine told Business Insider, this summer “will be a one-molt season, based on temperatures,” and that molt will likely not occur until July or August. Unfortunately, until that occurs, we can expect to pay a little more for our lobster dinners.

Don’t let the cooler water temperatures fool you, though; if anything, this summer is a glimpse into the past. The start of this year is contrary to recent trends we are seeing in the lobster industry – lucky for our wallets, not so lucky for the lobsters. Lobsters are a cold-water species that will continually face the impacts of climate change such as warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification on a daily basis.

Climate change is the reason why we saw record high lobster landings and low prices in 2012 and 2013. Warming ocean temperatures triggered an early molting and migration season for lobsters, leading to a high supply early on in the summer. Also, since the molting occurred so early, we experienced a two-molt season, which is atypical for New England waters and leads to a high supply of lobsters throughout the summer.

These conditions are not sustainable for lobsters. In warmer temperatures, lobsters are forced to use more energy for respiration, and therefore have less available for feeding, growth, energy storage, and reproduction. A lobster’s immune response is also compromised by the warmer water, which is evident from the upsurge in occurrences of shell disease.

We must not let the current season fool us – climate change still remains a great threat to our lobster populations. Global warming rates are not slowing down; they are occurring faster than ever. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the rest of the ocean. In an attempt to understand climate change impacts on the lobster industry and help the lobster industry better prepare for the season, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has started a lobster forecasting project and was able to accurately predict the late start for this year’s season.

Unfortunately, this prediction model has come too late for the southern New England lobster industry, which has all but disappeared as the lobsters migrated north in search of cooler waters. Hopefully, in the Gulf of Maine, it can be a new tool in our climate change adaptation belt.


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