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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

The author's husband, with lobster roll
Photo Credit: Anna Fahey



I’m quite partial to lobster. And my husband is from Maine, so every couple years when we head east to visit friends and family, I get to go on a lobster binge. Legend has it that during one week-long stay I tucked away at least a dozen  lobster rolls. Exaggeration or not, you can imagine my delight in learning that the price of lobster has hit rock bottom this season (we’re headed back east for a wedding in September).

Lobster for $3.99 per pound in Portland, ME? It’s too good to be true.

But deep down, as someone who grew up in a commercial fishing family, I know it’s more like too good to be good.

Lobster Thermidor? How about lobster thermometer?

As the Center for American Progress shows, there’s more reason to be alarmed than delighted. There are hidden ecological and economic costs to these lobster prices. In fact, this is a good example of climate change impacts that might seem like good news for consumers or other groups on the surface but can devastate local communities in the near term and bode ill for the long haul.

The immediate impacts on Maine’s lobster families are stark. With prices too low to break even, many lobster boats are sitting idle in port and some families and businesses likely face financial ruin.

Here’s how the  Wall Street Journal summed it up:

Prices at the dock have fallen to as low as $1.25 a pound in some areas—roughly 70% below normal and a nearly 30-year-low for this time of year, according to fishermen, researchers and officials. The reason: an unseasonably warm winter created a supply glut throughout the Atlantic lobster fishery.

The Wall Street Journal account failed to mention human-caused climate change as a factor in warming seas (Neither did the  Boston Globe, nor the  Associated Press or Patriot Ledger or any other mainstream newspaper I could find). But WSJ quoted  Bill Adler, head of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, who described the two main effects of the warm winter on prices:

1) Unusually mild temperatures allowed Canadian lobstermen, who typically fish in the early spring, to bring in large catches.

2) Crustaceans molt (shed their exoskeleton) in late spring and early summer. The soft molting lobsters—called rags—arrived six weeks earlier than normal. Rags fetch lower prices because they contain less meat and can’t be shipped live (part of the reason that customers elsewhere in the US won’t see bargain prices).

As Center for American Progress put it:

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 towarming 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.

Maine’s lobsters are unusually abundant. I guess that’s some good news for the species. But warming may take its toll on lobsters in other ways that weaken stocks over time and continue to push their habitat northward. The CAP article points out that  recent work by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows 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.” Plus, according to a study by the  Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, prolonged exposure to waters warmer than 20° Celsius (68° Fahrenheit) causes stress to respiratory and immune systems in lobsters, and leads to higher incidence of shell disease and acidosis (excessive amounts of acid in the blood).

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