Research on Early Life Stage Lobsters Receives Federal Funding

In October, the American Lobster Initiative received $2 million from NOAA for its third year of funding. The Initiative was begun in 2019 to support a national research competition related to the lobster fishery and a Northeast Regional Lobster Extension Program. The Extension Program is a four-year program operating in six states that links lobster research with stakeholders who need and can use the results. The Initiative’s research and extension activities are designed to address critical gaps in knowledge about how American lobster is being impacted by environmental change in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and southern New England.

Six new lobster research projects are funded to begin in 2021 with $1.4 million of NOAA funding. The projects encourage research partnerships between state agencies, academia and industry to examine impacts from environmental change on lobster and the fishery. Most of these projects are focused on the early stages of lobsters.

“One reason it’s so important to study these early life stages is that understanding how they respond to a changing environment could help us better predict what the population and the fishery might look like in the future,” said Amalia Harrington, Northeast Regional Lobster Extension Project Coordinator at Maine Sea Grant. “We still don’t have a good idea of how changes in food availability, new predators, and warming temperatures will impact the survival of these critical early stages. These new research projects are going to take us one step closer to filling those gaps.”

One-day old lobsters are photographed under the microscope at the Seawater Research Lab at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in March 2021. Photo by A. Devlin, Virginia Sea Grant.

Damion Brady at the University of Maine will expand decades-long work of modeling larval American lobster transport to include dynamics associated with prey availability. The project will model the distribution of lobster larvae and link that to trends in the distribution of the copepod Calanus finmarchicus and to the abundance and availability of recruitable habitats. Climate-induced changes in the Gulf of Maine may act to intensify a disconnect between larvae and their optimal food source. Through the team’s work with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and the Lobster Institute, the study will build a flexible ecosystem-based early life history model capable of answering fundamental questions regarding changes in ocean conditions, larval distribution, and their relationships to their food supply.

Rebecca Peters at DMR will collaborate with the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington to better understand what current and new predators of lobsters, particularly juvenile lobsters, exist in the Gulf of Maine. To answer this question, they will use current surveys to collect stomachs from five species that have recently been shown to be preying on lobster — Atlantic cod, white hake, red hake, Atlantic halibut, and Atlantic mackerel — and from two emerging species, black sea bass and striped bass. The research will provide data on potential lobster predators and allow managers to use these data to update lobster assessments and work on ecosystem models for the Gulf of Maine.

Researchers at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve will conduct a study to evaluate the overall health and quality of mature female lobsters with respect to their egg production and examine how environmental drivers of climate change may be affecting them. This work will address: 1) why lobster egg clutch sizes have declined and to what extent this limits egg production; 2) what factors have contributed the most to declines in egg production; and 3) what impact temperature, maternal history, and size have on egg production and viability. The data obtained from this project will be used to inform future stock assessments and lay the groundwork for long-term monitoring programs.

Former University of Maine professor Yong Chen, now at Stony Brook University in New York, will create a simulation framework to better understand the impacts of possible climate-induced changes in lobster life history and management implications for the Gulf of Maine and southern New England stocks. The project will develop a collaborative research team to help identify “what if” scenarios; develop a simulation framework for predicting the response of lobster stocks to these scenarios; illustrate the impacts of increasing temperatures on lobster stocks given status quo management; and compare the performance of different management regulations in a changing climate.

Northeastern University scientist Jonathan Grabowski will study the impact of range-expanding species such as black sea bass and blue crabs which are entering southern New England and the Gulf of Maine due to warming water. The study will answer questions such as the prevalence of these species in the Gulf of Maine, which coastal New England habitats and depths they prefer, and if they overlap with and consume different life stages of lobster, such as early post-settlement and larger juveniles. Answering these critical questions will help evaluate the degree to which novel species range expansions are a potential threat to the lobster fishery.

New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist Josh Carloni will design and test a trap that effectively samples early juvenile lobsters, which are generally missed in the ventless trap survey but may act as an early warning sign of changes in future landings. Once this trap has been tested and calibrated it will be used in conjunction with SCUBA surveys and traditional ventless traps to explore the relationship between lobster density, temperature and catch. Further, the project seeks to better understand the degree to which ventless traps accurately reflect the size structure of the sublegal lobster population, and whether smaller lobsters may be excluded due to intraspecific competition.

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