It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see one possible future for the Maine lobster industry. All it takes is a look south.

Warming water temperatures, the result of man-made climate change, have for decades been the primary factor in pushing the lobster population farther and farther north, first decimating the industry off the coasts of Rhode Island and Connecticut, then off Cape Cod.

And even though the industry has been booming in Maine, with record landings the last three years, the focal point of the catch has changed through the years, from Casco Bay to Penobscot Bay and, now, Down East, a signal of its vulnerability to change.

One of the state’s iconic industries, indispensable to and inseparable from so many communities, is being disrupted. The question is: How far will it go?

Fortunately, regulators are watching.

TAKING NOTICE

The Maine Department of Marine Resources will soon award contracts for studies exploring not only the full economic impact of the lobster industry, on which there is surprisingly little data, but also the impact of warming ocean temperatures on lobster biology and the ocean ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lobster management board has also voted to study lobster stocks in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

The latter study is meant to avoid the kind of collapse that occurred in southern New England, where there are only an estimated 10 million adult lobsters, one-fifth of the population total from its peak.

As a result of that collapse, the commission has adopted new measures for that region to be phased in by June 2019, among them closed seasons, closed areas, trapping cutbacks and changes to minimum and maximum sizes.

That could be the future for the Gulf of Maine. In some ways, it’s already here.

The record landings – $495 million in 2015, more than four times the catch of 20 years ago – have come despite no growth in lobster population in southern Maine, once the center of lobstering in the state. The haulings off York County have actually shrunk, mirroring the changes off Cape Cod and further south.

TROUBLE AHEAD

That is, in large part, attributable to the warmer and more acidic waters in the Gulf of Maine, which since 2004 has been warming faster than anywhere on Earth, with the exception of an area northeast of Japan.

The warming water helped kill the population of cod – formerly the fishery’s kingpin – and acidic water is particularly bad for shellfish. The effect on mussels, oysters and clams is already apparent. It’s not hard to see trouble ahead for the lobster.

“We’re definitely seeing this geographic shift, and it’s in keeping with the warming of the gulf,” said Robert Steneck of the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center. “Unless something changes in terms of ocean temperature trends, the Gulf of Maine will not likely remain a great place for high lobster abundance. How long this takes to play out, whether it’s decades or centuries, nobody knows.”

Maine cannot by itself do much to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, though even considering those limitations, state government has not done enough to address and ready for warming.

At the very least, state officials should implement the findings of a commission that studied ocean acidification, and Maine should hold up the gulf as an example to the rest of the country of what warming will bring, as we wait for the next round of studies to reinforce just how dire the situation is.

There should be little doubt that changes in climate could disrupt the lobster industry the same way that changing markets have harmed Maine paper mills, with similarly devastating results for the communities that rely on it. We have to be prepared.