Maine fishermen see warning signs in lobster surge

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BRUNSWICK — After Maine’s lobster industry set sales records for a second straight year, area fishermen are enjoying the boom while the water is warm.

Literally.

Rising sea temperatures are benefiting Maine’s iconic crustacean, leading to an increase in population while other marine species, such as soft-shell clams, have suffered a decline, according to fishermen who spoke at a March 16 Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association panel.

But the factors for today’s success may portend tomorrow’s economic and cultural disaster, according to some area fishermen.

“We’re going to start going down when it gets warmer,” Maine Lobstermen’s Association President Dave Cousens told the audience at the Frontier Cafe.

Cousens was joined by MCFA President Gerry Cushing, of Port Clyde; Chebeague Island fisherman Alex Todd, and lobsterman Steve Train of Long Island.

Between July and October 2016, Cousens said, the ocean temperature was 60 degrees where he fishes in South Thomaston – a rise of three degrees since he began hauling traps three decades ago.

If temperatures rise three more degrees, he said, “lobster larvae will not survive. That’s what we’re facing.”

Last year, Maine fishermen hauled a record $130 million pounds of lobster, and the industry saw its value rocket $30 million, according to the Department of Marine Resources.

But the panelists warned the boom will be temporary.

“You don’t have to look too far south to see what’s coming,” Cousens said, noting the sharp demise of lobster populations off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Long Island, New York.

“That line’s just moving north,” Scott Moody, owner of Moody’s Seafood in Cundy’s Harbor, agreed the next day over the phone.

Moody, a fourth-generation lobsterman, fished in Harpswell for 30 years before starting his wholesale business, which includes five retail locations along Maine’s coast.

He buys directly from lobstermen and shellfish harvesters, and sells their product mostly to a distributor in Boston.

“In shellfish, we’ve seen a big turn,” Moody said last week. “I used to buy about $1 million in soft-shell (clams) in the Harpswell location,” at 337 Cundy’s Harbor Road.

“Since the climate change, I’m doing ($750,000) in hard-shell and only $250,000 in soft-shell,” he said.

Years ago, waiting to unload at his Boston distributor, “I’d be sitting behind five or six trucks of soft-shell clams,” he recalled. “They started to disappear. Then I’ve see guys bringing in hard-shell.”

He explained how warming waters increased the number of predators, such as Japanese green crabs, that can smash a clam’s soft shell.

The per-pound value of soft-shell clams fell 13.4 percent last year, reflecting a 20 percent drop in pounds harvested, according to the DMR.

“If you’re not lobstering, you’re probably not making a living,” Cousens said at the March 16 panel, noting the rise of lobsters and ocean temperatures has also been “at the expense of groundfish.”

“We are left lobstering,” Train said.

While fishermen are shifting their focus to the booming lobster industry, Train suggested the trend is in part guided by a lack of other viable options.

Moody offered another perspective on the bigger boats he has watched lobstermen purchase with their recent profits.

Larger vessels, he said, are needed to reach lobsters farther and farther offshore where the water is cooler, and where lobsters will continue to survive as sea temperatures rise.

Acknowledging the bleak future, MCFA Executive Director Ben Martens said his organization is trying to combat the threat of climate change with small, achievable legislative and management policies.

“We are looking at the potential that different types of management can have on mitigating the dramatic impacts that climate change can have on an ecosystem, and we are bringing together people to talk about what they are seeing so that others can listen, learn, and build upon those experiences,” Martens said in an email Monday.

“We need to have diverse fishing businesses in Maine so that if lobsters start to decline there are other options available to fishermen,” he added. “And we are actually seeing more groundfish out on the water now, so our hope is that this is a cycle that is coming back around for our waters.”

His optimism was in contrast to opinion expressed by his organization’s president.

“We’re going to have to fall flat on our face” for fishermen to adapt, Cushing said.

Although maybe not everyone – not Moody, at least.

“I guess that’s where I’m a little ahead of (others) in looking further down the road,” Moody said. “I’m already seeking alternatives.”

Aquaculture, he said, is the way forward.

“That’s where we’re going to survive, really,” he said.

Moody said he has plans to develop a hard-shell clam farm in the New Meadows area sometime next year and is working to find a location.

Moody also started a shellfish purification processing plant last year that allows him to catch, clean, and sell clams he finds in restricted, polluted areas.

But Moody acknowledged he’s an outlier.

“We all have concerns about (climate change),” he said, but it isn’t a frequent topic of conversation with fishermen when he’s buying their catch.

“I think they’re dragging their feet on facing it,” Moody said.

He said change is difficult for an industry that is also a pastime and a tradition in places like Harpswell, where commercial fishing makes up nearly 60 percent of the town’s employment, according to the 2005 Comprehensive Plan.

Todd, a 10th-generation Chebeague fisherman, said he is concerned about the death of fishing communities, as well as the industry.

“It’s scary to me to see that way of life end,” he said.

Moody agreed, but said as a parent, he is forced to be practical.

“I’m a fourth-generation (fisherman). My kids would be fifth,” he said. “You know what I tell them? Don’t’ get into fishing. Don’t get hooked on it out of the gate, because I think the future’s bleak.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter:@calliecferguson.

Edited 3/28 to clarify a reference to soft-shell clams in the third paragraph.

Fishermen last winter in Harpswell’s Cundy’s Harbor, one of the town’s oldest fishing villages. While rising sea temperatures are temporarily increasing lobster populations, some believe the climate-related trend may destroy the species.

Some fishermen believe Maine’s record lobster catch could be a sign of a climate-related industry collapse.

Fishermen Alex Todd, left, Gerry Cushing, David Cousens and Steve Train discuss the effects of climate change on Maine fisheries and the lobster industry at a panel in Brunswick March 16.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.

  • Zach Buoy Whitener

    Green crabs are an invasive species from Europe, not Japan. Asian shore crabs are another invasive we have here, but they are not as abundant as the ubiquitous green crab.

  • 4IndependentMPs

    From the article: “Moody also started a shellfish purification processing plant last year that allows him to catch, clean, and sell clams he finds in restricted, polluted areas.”

    Finding ways to eat polluted food and growing fish in cages is the future of our seafood diet? I think I will invest in whatever medications we will need to overcome the bacterial infections and viral pathogens we will be fighting while trying to survive on such food. Just in my lifetime we have gone from a vibrant ocean teaming with nutritious fish to eating out of what amounts to garbage dumps. Our politicians will hail fish feedlots as a victory I see them as a testament to our greed and their derelict mismanagement of our oceans.

    • Lucy Ball

      Shellfish purification plants have been around for years. I went to one in RI about 20yrs. ago. There was one in southern Maine also.

      • 4IndependentMPs

        Again, testament to how far back this problem goes without nearly enough political will to protect our oceans.