The Hidden Cost of Cheap Lobster

Michael Conathan explains how the record-low price of lobster is another economic effect of global climate change.

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Cooked lobster claws and tails are seen at a lobster dealer in Portland, Maine. (AP/Pat Wellenbach)
Cooked lobster claws and tails are seen at a lobster dealer in Portland, Maine. (AP/Pat Wellenbach)

It’s a good time to be a tourist in Maine. While the rest of the country is being ravaged by wildfires, sweltering away setting record numbers of record-high temperatures, or withering in the grasp of a drought that rivals the 1930s Dust Bowl, northern New England’s temperate climes are a welcome relief. And the cherry on top of that cool, soothing sundae is that the state’s signature seafood, lobster, is selling at rock-bottom prices—as little as $3.99 per pound in Portland.

The downside, of course, is that while epicures can sample their favorite crustaceans for less than they typically pay for bologna, most lobstermen are struggling to just break even at per-pound prices as low as $2—about half what they typically receive for their catch. This level is far below the break-even point Maine’s 5,000 commercial lobstermen need to cover expenses of fuel, bait, and wages.

The cause? It’s somewhat hard to pin down, but a major contributor is global climate change. And the lobster fishery isn’t the only one feeling the heat.

Lobsters, like all crustaceans, molt as they grow. Dust the cobwebs off your ninth-grade biology textbook, and you may recall the term “exoskeleton”—the external shell possessed by lobsters, crabs, and most insects. Lobsters typically shed theirs in the late spring and early summer, and for a period of time they are effectively snails without shells—the limpest of which lobstermen refer to as “rags” because it best describes their consistency.

This year, rags started showing up early in traps, and many in the industry, including Bob Bayer who heads the Maine Lobster Institute, trace this to warming ocean temperatures. As Andrew Pershing of the University of Maine and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute asserted at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine in June were equivalent to average July temperatures. It’s no coincidence then that lobstermen are seeing rags a month early.

When it comes to the price crash, climate may not be the sole cause, but soft-shell lobsters contain less meat than their hard-shelled brethren and can’t be transported as far—you’ll never eat a rag in the Midwest—so their market is limited, and their value is lower.

Other factors that have driven lobster prices down include an unusually high volume of lobster caught in Canada this spring, which glutted Canadian processors’ market and reduced the need for Maine’s product—as much as 70 percent of Maine’s lobster goes to Canada for processing.

One silver lining, however, is that Maine’s lobster stock is healthy too. In 2011 Maine lobster landings set all-time records, surpassing the 100-million-pound mark for the first time ever and grossing lobstermen more than $330 million—more than 80 percent of the value of all fish landings in the state.

There’s still no denying that the marine effects of climate change are already being felt in many of the world’s fisheries. A study published earlier this month in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences found “rapid and consistent decreases” in the populations of sockeye salmon runs from Puget Sound, Washington, to the Yakutat Peninsula in southeast Alaska due to ocean warming. Warmer water provides more favorable conditions for less valuable species, including pink salmon, meaning they are more likely to out-compete sockeye in the ecosystem. And similar to lobster in Maine, salmon is big business in Alaska: In 2010 Alaskan fishermen landed $263 million worth of sockeye, a major component of a fishing industry that creates more than 80,000 jobs in the state.

Furthermore, as a direct result of our ocean’s ability to absorb much of the excess carbon in our atmosphere, the seas are becoming increasingly acidic, which makes it increasingly difficult for oysters, clams, and other creatures to grow their shells. This phenomenon, known as ocean acidification, is already having dramatically negative effects on ocean industries, including Washington state’s shellfish aquaculture operations.

Finally, recent work by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Janet Nye and her colleagues has shown that the overall geographic range of fish populations in the northwest Atlantic and the Gulf of Maine have shifted northward in direct proportion to warming ocean temperatures, meaning new species now live in regions that were previously dominated by other species.

Maine lobstermen don’t have to look very far to see what their industry will look like as the warming trend continues. As lobster populations have boomed in the colder, more northern waters of the Gulf of Maine—protected from the Gulf Stream’s warming by the outstretched arm of Cape Cod—they have crashed in the once lobster-rich areas of Long Island and Block Island Sounds.

The economic fallout from the climate-driven trophic shift will clearly be significant, particularly in areas such as Downeast Maine where lobstering is central to the regional economy. Yet the regulatory fallout could be even greater.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs our nation’s fishing activity, requires that all fisheries found to be overfished must be rebuilt to sustainable populations within 10 years by limiting the amount of fish that can be caught. Yet these rebuilding targets are based on historic species’ abundance with no allowance for future oceanographic conditions. Until this provision is addressed, we’ll be punishing participants in even the best-managed fisheries as they take deeper cuts in a futile attempt to rebuild fish populations to levels that are unattainable through no fault of their own. While this rebuilding dilemma hasn’t yet affected the lobster fishery, there is concern that efforts to rebuild other species in the Gulf of Maine such as cod will be hampered by changing environmental conditions.

At yesterday’s House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who chairs the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Insular Affairs, suggested that perhaps the money the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is spending on climate-monitoring satellites would be better spent on fisheries stock assessments or other data used directly to determine catch limits in our fisheries. While there’s no doubt we could use additional investment in fisheries science, the reality is there’s no way the two disciplines can be considered mutually exclusive.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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