Maine Sea Grant Hires Northeast Regional Lobster Extension Coordinator

A new person has joined the Maine Sea Grant marine extension team in Orono. Amalia Harrington, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Maine in 2019, was hired in March as the Northeast Regional Lobster Extension Coordinator through the American Lobster Initiative. The Initiative funds research aimed at understanding physical and chemical changes affecting American lobster in the Gulf of Maine, as well as a regional lobster extension program.

“In my position I will connect research and industry members to increase collaboration,” Harrington said. “The Lobster Initiative operates through the Northeast so I will act as a bridge among the states.”

Harrington, 32, grew up in Michigan but quickly found her way to the Pacific Ocean. She attended the University of San Diego, where she received her B.A. in marine science in 2010, followed by an M.S. from San Diego State University in 2014. She moved to Maine with her husband in 2015 and pursued her Ph.D. in marine biology at the University, working with Dr. Heather Hamlin.

“I started in California working on spiny lobster habitat and shelter use. It was part of a lobster tagging and recapture program and I worked with lobstermen there,” she said. Through her work Harrington became fascinated with lobster behavior. “They have great behaviors. They respond well to environmental conditions. If they are not happy they get up and walk,” she explained.

At the University of Maine Harrington studied lobster biology in a changing marine environment. The Gulf of Maine provided an excellent research area: the Gulf is warming rapidly, the water chemistry is changing, and habitat for lobsters has expanded as water temperatures have increased. The changing environment does not mean an abrupt decline or increased mortality of lobsters, Harrington noted in her research. Such changes can affect lobsters in less obvious ways.

Increasing water temperature, for example, increased lobsters’ heart rate, Harrington found, an example of physiological stress. Warmer water also has an effect on lobster larvae. Harrington examined stage four lobster larvae in her laboratory, analyzing blood drawn from the tiny creatures.

“The warmer the water, the fast the larvae grow and the higher the hemocyte counts are,” she said. Hemocytes are a component of lobster blood important to the animal’s immune system and cellular stress. “Growing faster could be a good thing, but if cells are breaking down faster [because the lobster is growing quickly] hemocytes have to focus on cell damage and not the immune response. Warmer water also caused levels of genes related to cellular stress and metabolism to increase, but lowered levels of genes involved in the immune system [which may make the lobster susceptible to illness],” Harrington explained. “And with a higher metabolic rate and cell repair, you get really hungry.” If those tiny hungry lobsters run into an absence of food in the seafloor area where they settle, such as the tiny copepod Calanus finmarchicus, they could fail to thrive.

Amalia Harrington and some very tiny lobsters. A. Harrington Photo

Harrington looks forward to working with both lobstermen and researchers in her new position. Despite the fact she began work on the day that the University campus shut down due to the coronavirus, she has been active connecting to people in the industry. “There are lots of people on campus working with lobster, like food scientists and economists, as well as biologists. The question is how to keep the fishery resilient to this environmental change. I am looking forward to one-on-one conversations with fishermen on what they think is important,” she said. “I am always willing to talk to people about how to keep lobster a vibrant industry.”
Amalia Harrington can be reached at amalia.harrington@maine.edu and at 581-1440.