Update on Lobster Fishery Offers View of the Future

Given its value to the Maine economy, lobster was a major topic of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Kathleen Reardon, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) lobster biologist, reviewed the 2018 landings figures for a packed seminar audience. Despite a variety of difficulties — Chinese tariffs on U.S. seafood, escalating bait prices, an ever-warmer Gulf of Maine — Maine lobstermen landed 119,640,379 pounds of lobster in 2018, 8 million pounds more than was landed in 2017, according to preliminary DMR data. The average price was $4.05 per pound in 2018 compared to $3.92 in 2017.
The Department has recently unveiled its new Lobster Landings Viewer on its web site, which allows users to query lobster landings by area and by town.
Rick Wahle, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, spoke about the 2018 American Lobster Settlement Index. In recent years the Settlement Index has shown a broad drop in the density of juvenile lobsters, known as young-of-the-year. That widespread decline is still evident, Wahle said, but there were a few places experiencing a distinct uptick, including Jonesport and sections of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The north shore of Prince Edward Island saw a huge uptick in settlement, which began in 2016.
Because the Gulf of Maine has warmed so much in recent years, researchers, in collaboration with lobstermen, began surveying deepwater sites for larval lobsters beginning in 2016. The warming waters have made areas of bottom previously too cold for settlement (below 54 degrees F.) available to juveniles. Data derived from deepwater passive collectors set from lobster boats fishing in Downeast Maine indicate that there are a lot more young-of-the-year per square meter in shallow and midwater areas than in the past. Wahle and colleagues will use the settlement data in a “hindcast” model to predict what the population may look like in the future. The model predicts that future lobster landings will decline. “Thus far it corresponds well except in Zones E and F,” Wahle said.

DMR’s new Lobster Landings Viewer allows one to search for landings by town, port, or region at https://maine.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard. DMR image.

DMR’s ventless trap survey, which provides data on sub-legal and adult lobsters, show that from 2015-to 2018, eastern Maine saw much more settlement at depth than in shallow or midwater depths, an indication that lobsters are finding warmer water temperatures at depth
DMR lobster research biologist Jesica Waller spoke about a DMR study of female lobsters in Boothbay Harbor. The project came in response to lobstermen reporting more smaller egg-bearing lobsters in the area. DMR had done two similar studies, the first in 1968 and the second in 1994, so researchers had data to compare the current study to. The size of Boothbay Harbor female lobsters at maturity in 1968 was 94 mm; in 1994 89 mm; in 2018 that size had decreased to 84 mm. DMR has been keeping track of water temperatures in Boothbay Harbor for more than a decade. It found that water temperatures lay between 43o Fand 50o F., (the range of temperature conducive for development and molting), for many more days today than in the past. That, in turn, influences the speed with which the females grow to maturity. Waller plans to conduct additional studies on lobster maturity along the coast and offshore.
Reardon spoke about the ASMFC lobster stock assessment process which is due to be concluded in 2020. DMR provides substantial amounts of data on lobster to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for its modeling work, making the results of the department’s spring and fall trawl surveys, ventless trap survey and sea sampling even more important. Reardon noted that the fall trawl survey results, which give data on 53-82 mm lobsters, show that numbers are up compared to 2017. The ventless trap surveys in 2018 indicate that 2018 was much like 2016 in eastern Maine and more like 2017 for the midcoast and western Maine. Sea sampling in 2018 indicates that a much larger number of sublegal-size lobsters are turning up in lobster traps in the eastern lobster zones throughout the year now. Shell disease saw a slight downturn in 2018, as is typical in a season following a cold water year.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher closed the session by answering questions from the audience. Concerning future restrictions on the lobster fishery due to right whales, he stated that a 40% reduction in endlines is definitely on the table. When asked if latent lobster licenses will affect future regulations, he said “Yes. The feds and non-governmental organizations look at potential effort. Tags are figuring into that. It’s not great. The longer we are at 10% harvester reporting, the less data we have available to fight this. So it’s likely that it [100% harvester reporting] will be implemented earlier than in five years.”
The DMR will hold meetings with lobstermen at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 8, at South Portland High School Cafeteria; Tuesday, April 9 at Oceanside High School Auditorium in Rockland; and Wednesday, April 10, at Ellsworth High School to discuss possible actions lobstermen could live with.