Every year, the University of Maine fields phone calls from lobstermen who suspect that pockmarked, thin-shelled lobsters they have hauled aboard have epizootic shell disease.

Sometimes, the university can send a researcher out to see if a lobster has the disease, which has ripped through the southern New England fishery and is just beginning to show up in Maine waters.

The university has had no money, however, to hire the staff it would need to collect and study diseased lobsters in real time. Usually, a diseased lobster is long gone, tossed back in the sea, before the researcher can study the specimen or even confirm the diagnosis.

But this spring, thanks to a $127,000 state grant, the University of Maine will create a rapid response team to collect and evaluate sick lobsters harvested in state waters as part of a study on the impacts of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification on the lobster population, said Deborah Bouchard, who runs the university’s animal health lab and the research at its Aquaculture Research Institute.

“We want to get the word out to call us anytime that a lobsterman sees something in their traps that’s not right,” Bouchard said. “For years, all the dollars for this kind of thing went southward, where the highest incidence of shell disease was, but now we are seeing funding to study what’s happening right here. Even though it’s not prevalent in Maine waters now, we need to know what’s creeping up the shoreline.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources conducts regular sea sampling programs that document shell disease, among many other factors, but the number is limited to about 21 survey runs a month across all state waters during lobster season, which runs from June through October, said Kathleen Reardon, the state’s chief lobster scientist. The new University of Maine study will be the only real-time study of shell disease in state waters, and will flesh out the state’s statistical research to date, she said.

In southern New England, as many as one in every three lobsters trapped has some degree of shell disease, Reardon said. In southern Maine waters, the peak incidence rate was in 2013, when it climbed as high as two lobsters for every 100 sampled, but it dropped last year to less than one in every 100 sampled, she said. In eastern Maine, the state has never found more than half a percent of lobsters surveyed to show evidence of shell disease.

Shell disease was first detected about two decades ago in the waters of Long Island Sound off Connecticut and New York, off Block Island in Rhode Island and Buzzards Bay, the water sound of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The bacterial disease causes the lobster shells to deteriorate, showing pits and eventually thinning out. The disease spreads rapidly, especially among the females, which carry their shells longer. Lobsters carrying the disease are not marketable.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources on Monday announced the shell study grant and three others funded by the sale of specialty lobster license plates, including $82,000 to Colby College to study the post-harvest economic impact of the state lobster industry and $37,500 each to the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance and Penobscot East Resource Center to beef up an industry leadership institute and develop a high school lobster curriculum, respectively.

At Colby, professor Michael Donihue and his six-student team will focus on the jobs created after the lobster is hauled ashore, and the money that those post-harvest employees pump back into the economy with their wages. Most economic impact studies of the state lobster industry focus on the money made, and jobs created, to catch the lobster, by the fishermen, trap makers, buoy makers and even bait suppliers, among others, Donihue said.

“Those are wonderful stories, but the impact of the fishery is felt way down the distribution chain,” Donihue said. “The distributor takes the lobster from pound to processor. That processor picks apart claw meat that will end up in lobster macaroni and cheese. The truck driver hauls the mac and cheese to the packaging plant and another driver hauls it to the cruise ship that will serve it up for dinner. That’s a lot of steps, and a lot of jobs, between the boat and the plate.”

The four awards, which total about $284,000, come out of an education, research and development fund bankrolled by the sale of specialty lobster license plates, a program started in 2003 to support the state’s biggest commercial fishery. This latest round of grants, which were awarded by an appointed board that reviewed 14 grant applications, will leave the fund with $882,262 in it. Although income varies from year to year, state officials say the fund usually grows by about $225,000 a year.

By 2014, Maine had issued about 26,000 lobster plates.

About half of the specialty plate fee, which is $20 for a first-time issuance and $15 for a renewal, goes to the fund.


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