Scientists will meet in Portland this week to discuss how a changing ocean environment and global economy is affecting the biology and business of lobsters.

More than 250 biologists, oceanographers, fishery managers and industry members from 15 nations plan to attend the 11th International Conference & Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management, said University of Maine marine scientist Rick Wahle, a co-chairman of the symposium.

It is only the second time the U.S. has hosted the event, Wahle said. The first was in Florida in 2000. Since then, the American lobster fishery has exploded, he said.

“It was about time,” Wahle said. “It’s been hosted all over the world, but never in New England, which we all know to be one of the world’s lobster hot spots.”

American lobster is the country’s most valuable fishery, Wahle said. While they can be found as far south as the Carolinas, 80 percent of America’s lobster haul comes out of Maine waters. In 2016, Maine commercial lobstermen trapped more than 130 million pounds, or $533.1 million worth, of the greenish-brown creatures, making it a record-breaking year in both volume and value.

But they aren’t the only lobsters out there. Scientists at the conference will present research on the tiny orange-pink Norway lobster, the clawless Florida or Caribbean spiny lobster, and the European lobster, the species that almost sparked a European Union-American trade war in 2016. There will also be panel discussions on commercially important lobster-like species, such as the spiny lobsters of Australia and New Zealand.

As the host species, however, the American lobster will be the star of this year’s conference, as will the New England fishing system, Wahle said.

These international lobster and lobster-like fisheries are each managed in their own way, which makes comparisons in size, profits, markets, and management efforts inevitable, Wahle said. For example, the Maine lobster harvest is managed by controlling the amount of fishing effort, with state or federal limits on fishing licenses and gear, while in Australia, fishing is controlled through catch limits, or quotas.

Fishing will have its own day of scientific panels and industry discussions. On Thursday, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher and Maine Lobstermen’s Association President Dave Cousens will kick off a day of presentations on science-industry collaborations, international shipping routes for lobster, trap modifications, post-trap mortality, how industry is dealing with climate change, and the aging of Maine’s lobstering fleet.

The risk of Maine’s growing economic dependence on lobsters is the topic of University of Maine professor Robert Steneck’s keynote address on Industry Day. Lobster accounts for more than 80 percent of Maine’s total commercial fisheries profits. While lobster landings have surged in Maine, the southern New England fishery has collapsed, both as a result of the same process – widespread ocean warming, Wahle said.

Lobsters become stressed when the water rises above 68 degrees, he said. Temperatures in southern New England have risen above that threshold more and more in recent years, while temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are now close to ideal for lobsters, Wahle said. But continued warming here could bring more shell disease and thermal stress, causing concerns that Maine’s iconic fishery could suffer the same fate as southern New England’s.

Already scientists are scrambling to explain the sharp decline in the number of juvenile lobsters found in the annual lobster settlement survey in the Gulf of Maine, and what it means for the future of the Maine fishery. Researchers want to know if rising ocean temperatures, diet or predation, or a combination of all the above, are killing lobster larvae, or if they are simply moving to new territory that isn’t being sampled.

“Maine lobster is a symbol of our state around the world, and the economic value of the fishery cannot be overstated,” Wahle said. “But it’s more than that. Because it’s such a recognizable species, it is an instantly recognizable poster child for the impact of the changing environment on our fisheries. It is a great species to convey the ecological effects of climate change. And it hits a lot of people who live on the coast right in the pocketbook.”

Wahle estimates the cost of organizing the symposium, which is being co-hosted by Massachusetts, at about $150,000. Registration fees from $400 for students to $800 for professional scientists covered about two-thirds of that cost. The rest was funded by sponsors ranging from the Maine Department of Marine Resources to Ready Seafood of Portland to the consulate general of Canada. Members of the public can attend, but they must pay a registration fee.

Maine landed the conference back in 2014, during the last symposium, when attendees voted on when and where they next wanted to meet. Wahle did not know the economic impact of hosting the conference, but in addition to the 250 hotel rooms and meals for the week, participants can also go scuba diving, tour local breweries, shop or enjoy a river cruise in Damariscotta and a lobster bake on Peaks Island.

The conference itself will be held Monday through Friday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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