Jason Goldstein, research director at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, helps intern Sophia Troeh learn to grasp a lobster during a survey on the Webhannet River estuary in Wells in July. Photo courtesy of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm

WELLS — The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve will receive about $250,000 over two years to study how warming coastal waters are affecting lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, the National Sea Grant Office has announced.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most waters around the world.

Since lobsters thrive in cold water, this warming trend has raised concerns about the future of the Gulf’s lobster fishery. Southern New England has already seen dramatic declines in lobster counts and the fishery there is in jeopardy.

“Lobsters prefer cold water and will move to deeper, offshore areas to find it,” said Jason Goldstein, research director at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. “We plan to discover how the inshore and offshore movements of female lobsters are affected by warming waters, and whether their young can settle and grow in shallow nursery habitats as coastal waters become warmer.”

Lobster abundance estimates are at an all-time high in the Gulf of Maine, but an all-time low in southern New England. Warming waters over the past 15 years have reduced the number of young lobsters found in nearshore nursery areas.

Although baby lobsters are continuing to appear in high numbers off some parts of Canada, they are tailing off in New England. The persistently low number of young lobsters has managers concerned about sustaining the fishery.

University of Maine scientist Rick Wahle has documented trends in baby lobster density for years, and released new data for 2018 in June. The data reinforce recent trends about lobsters that show upticks off sites in Atlantic Canada, such as some areas in Nova Scotia, Wahle said, and reported below-average numbers from Bar Harbor to Cape Cod, he said.

Wahle tracks where lobsters are settling in 23 areas from Rhode Island to Prince Edward Island. This year’s data showed high totals in Canadian locations such as St. Mary’s Bay, Nova Scotia, and the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, but low numbers in Maine fishing areas such as the midcoast region and Casco Bay.

New England’s commercial harvest of lobster has been strong in recent years, but it’s dependent on young lobsters growing to maturity. Some New England sites, such as those off Rhode Island, show few baby lobsters at all.

American lobster supports the most valuable single-species fishery in the country. Today, the value of the American lobster fishery is estimated at about $667 million, according to Sea Grant. The majority of the American lobster industry is based in Maine. In 2016, more than 80 percent of U.S. lobster landings were in Maine.

So far, the state’s haul of the crustaceans has been high all decade, according to The Associated Press. Maine’s catch peaked at an all-time high of 132.6 million pounds in 2016 before falling to 111.9 million pounds – still a historically high number – in 2017. The haul rebounded to nearly 120 million pounds last year.

The research by the Wells Reserve and its collaborators “will help lobstermen and fishery managers prepare for the uncertain future of the Gulf of Maine lobster industry,” Goldstein said.

Wells Reserve collaborators on the 2-year project include the University of New Hampshire, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, the New England Aquarium, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game.

Sea Grant’s new American Lobster Initiative is funding research into stressors that impact the lobster fishery both ecologically and socioeconomically. The science being supported is critical to the sustainable management of the fishery and for ensuring resiliency in the communities that depend on the valuable resource.

The research competition was informed by listening sessions with regional fishing industry stakeholders, state and federal fisheries managers, and university, state, and federal fisheries researchers.

The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve works to understand, protect, and restore coastal ecosystems of the Gulf of Maine through integrated research, stewardship, environmental learning, and community partnerships. The Wells Reserve at Laudholm is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the member-supported nonprofit Laudholm Trust.


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