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Lobster Prices Hit Rock Bottom Thanks To Climate Change

Lobster lovers are rejoicing this summer -- but the other effects of rapidly warming oceans should terrify us all

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Overfishing of cod (lobster’s natural predator) is a factor in Maine’s lobster stock as well—but changing environmental conditions like warming seas is tougher than altering industry behavior like overfishing.

Lobster's Northwest Counterparts

Lobster fishing communities aren’t alone. Center for American Progress director of ocean policy Michael Conathan writes that “there’s no denying that the marine effects of climate change are already being felt in many of the world’s fisheries.” He ties the lobster story to fisheries in our neck of the woods:

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.

Seafood's Other Carbon Problem -- Acidification

And, as we’ve  written before, when we burn fossil fuels our oceans must absorb excess carbon, making our seas increasingly acidic.  Ocean acidification makes it more and more difficult for many sea creatures—oysters and clams, for example—to grow shells. And like lobster fishers in Maine,  local shellfish businesses are suffering. As Sightline’s  Jen Langston explained it recently:

These local drivers are combining with rising global carbon dioxide emissions to make local waters increasingly acidic and put  the Northwest on the leading edge of destructive changes in ocean chemistry.  For example, seawater in the depths of Hood Canal is already among the most corrosive found anywhere on earth. As that trend accelerates, it  could profoundly change our marine systems, what appears on our dinner plates and whether  shellfish farmers and, potentially,  commercial fishermen will be able to stay in business.

Shellfish is a big deal in the Northwest— a $270 million industry in Washington State alone. It’s worrisome enough for local communities that Washington’s Governor Gregoire has set up a  blue ribbon panel—the first of its kind in the nation—to draft recommendations for dealing with  ocean acidification.

The effects of acidification on lobster require further research. Surprisingly, one study conducted at  Woods Hole indicates that some species, including the lobster, actually increase their ability to form shells in more acidic water. However, as the  Natural Resources Defense Council reported,  Justin Ries, lead author of the Woods Hole study cautioned (in  Oceanus magazine) that, like low prices for my beloved lobster rolls, it’s not reason to cheer. The energy consumption required to build shells in a lower pH environment for such species “may come at the expense of other critical life processes, such as tissue growth and reproduction.”

The lesson here, for somebody who likes to consume seafood, and as somebody who grew up watching fishing families struggle to get by, is that climate impacts are here. Climate change is happening now and it’s affecting real people and towns. It’s not just some far off problem for polar bears or “future generations.”

The Portland, Maine, newspaper, the  Republic, quoted one lobster fisherman saying “It’s a disaster, that’s all I can tell you. We’re just going to have to suffer through it, I guess.” But suffering through one bad season may not be an option when warming is likely to increase year by year. The lesson for journalists should be that reporting on the lobster glut and other fisheries issues these days without mentioning climate change or acidification is like  writing about extreme weather without so much as a nod to the human-caused warming that made conditions ripe for disaster.

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