This year’s lobster season is likely to begin earlier than normal because of conditions that researchers say are similar to 2012, when an early start and a sharp increase in landings drove prices down and created chaos in the state’s most valuable fishery.
The forecast – calling for a 55 percent chance of an “extremely early” start to the season, meaning at least three weeks before the traditional start in early July – was released Thursday by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which bases its projections on water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.
As in 2012, those temperatures are running well above normal and, in some locations, are at record highs for this time of year, said Andrew Pershing, chief science officer for the institute. Lobsters winter in deeper waters offshore and react to the warming temperatures by moving inshore and shedding their shells before growing new ones.
The early start to the 2012 lobster season, which arrived before the tourists who fuel demand for the crustaceans, coupled with an increase in landings of more than 20 percent, from 104.9 million pounds in 2011 to 127.3 million pounds in 2012, threw the industry into turmoil.
Many Maine lobstermen and dealers, facing low demand and a glut of soft-shelled lobsters that can’t survive being shipped long distances, ended up taking their catch to Canada for processing. That sparked confrontations with Canadian lobstermen, who complained about American lobsters driving down prices.
Pershing said the Gulf of Maine is “one of the most variable places on the planet” for air and water temperatures, but that water temperatures are definitely rising.
“The overall rate of average temperature increase is .07 degrees Fahrenheit per year,” he said. “That’s four times the warming rate of the planet.”
Lobster industry officials said they are better prepared for a possible jump in landings going into this season because more Maine processors are operating and there are marketing efforts in place to prepare for a mass arrival of lobsters in June, instead of July. Some lobster dealers also have installed cooking equipment so they can harvest the meat from the crustaceans on-site rather than have them languish in lobster pound tanks.
Until the lobsters are landed, it will be difficult to predict prices, since they are a reflection of quantity of lobsters caught, available processing and market demand. During the glut of 2012, prices paid to lobstermen dipped to below $2 per pound. In 2015, the price averaged $4.09 per pound for a total catch of 121.1 million pounds that was worth a record $495.4 million, according to preliminary figures released Thursday.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said her organization is bringing in a Canadian expert to talk to lobstermen about handling soft-shell lobsters, anticipating an abundance this spring. The idea is to prepare them to deal with the more delicate lobsters that have shed their hard shells and are growing new ones.
“Dealing with soft-shell lobsters can be tricky,” McCarron said. All lobsters are vulnerable to stress, she said, “but probably more so if it’s a soft shell.” Because lobsters need to be alive when they reach the end user or a processor, McCarron said, lobstermen are advised to make sure their boats’ holding tanks contain cool ocean water. Lobstermen also should pack the lobsters into crates gently and make sure they don’t sit on a dock too long.
“Our board figured we’d be in for an early season, so our word is out there that we’ve got to do the best job for our customers,” she said.
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute forecast, which is weighted and will be updated weekly through mid-April, sees no chance of a normal or late start to this year’s season. Pershing said there’s a 41 percent chance of a “very early” start – by two weeks – and a 4 percent chance of a one-week early start.
Last year, the GMRIforecast called for a 78 percent chance of a normal or one-week late start to the season, and that proved accurate, said Carl Wilson, director of the state Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Marine Science.
Although the institute has only last year’s forecast as a track record, it works closely with the department and has tested and fine-tuned its formula using years of data, Wilson said.
Kathy Mills, an associate research scientist at the institute, said forecasters made projections based on temperature data back to 2002 using the formula and they tracked very closely to what actually occurred. She noted that the forecasts worked best for warmer-than-normal years because more of those have occurred in recent years than colder-than-normal water temperatures.
“It’s a well-validated prediction,” Wilson agreed, while noting that the forecast is subject to revision if, for instance, this spring is colder and longer than normal.
The forecast didn’t attempt to predict the size of this year’s catch, but Wilson said there’s no indication there will be any drop from the past four years, when the total haul ranged between 121.1 million and 127.8 million pounds.
“We don’t see, in the immediate future, a cloud that would say (the catch) is going to drop in the near future,” said Wilson, who was the department’s chief lobster expert for more than 15 years. “We’re in an excellent run for lobsters now.”
But Wilson noted that the warm water temperatures in 2012 seemed to have affected lobster biology, including molting periods, egg dropping and susceptibility to shell disease in the years since, although the size of the catch has been relatively steady. He said that if the warm readings hold, researchers will look for similar effects in the next few years.