University of Maine press office, reprinted with permission.
When Bob Steneck came to the University of Maine in 1982, there were few marine ecologists in the state, and none interacted with fishermen. He was among the first in Maine to work with lobstermen on research, traveling with them on their boats, diving to the seafloor to study lobsters and sharing his findings with them.
At that time, there was a scientific consensus that the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine was declining. By working with lobstermen and diving down to the depths of the Gulf, Steneck showed that the population was actually on the rise.
Steneck’s work and that of his students and colleagues helped propel an expansion of and change in how lobster fisheries research is conducted in Maine. Over the proceeding decades, Steneck’s students continue collaborating with lobstermen and other fishermen on their studies. They focused on work that benefitted these industries, the management of Maine fisheries and the coastal communities that relied on them.
“We were able to take a different perspective by studying lobsters in their natural habitat. My hope was to do research to help the people of Maine,” Steneck says. “What came out of this work was research that was collaborative and directed toward improved management of the lobster fishery.”
After a 41-year career at UMaine filled with numerous studies, scientific publications, outreach and teaching the next generation of marine scientists, conservation biologists and leaders, Steneck, professor emeritus of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy has retired.
Steneck’s research helped better understand and manage the state’s lobster fishery, now worth almost $400 million. He and his students learned how baby lobsters grow up on the seafloor, what lobsters eat, who eats them and how they sustain their populations. This basic research was also useful for lobstermen as well as fishery managers and policymakers who must determine the status and trends of lobster stocks.
Much of Steneck’s research combined both basic and applied research. Basic research is driven by curiosity of what is currently unknown to science, whereas applied research focuses on solutions to specific problems. At the start of his career, most marine scientists focused exclusively on basic research. Due in part to Steneck’s influence, more of his colleagues and students work to integrate basic and applied research, often with the cooperation of fishermen in several industries.
In collaboration with his former student Rick Wahle, who most recently served as director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute, and other colleagues, Steneck discovered that as ocean temperatures rose over the years, lobster nursery grounds expanded in eastern Maine resulting in sharp increases in lobsters there. Warming temperatures elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, however, may increase threats of disease and interactions with invasive species.
A few years ago, Steneck and his colleagues published another study warning that lobsters’ current abundance and high value may be creating a false sense of security. Specifically, they worried that the economic value of lobsters was masking the risks related to almost relying on a single species. Maine’s marine economy would be in greater danger of collapsing if something happened to the lobster.
“Lobsters are a very big economic driver in Maine and of our multi-century maritime history, and I wanted everyone to understand the risk of depending on a single species,” he says. “I think people understand the problem, but I don’t think there are many great solutions.”
While Steneck has conducted extensive ecological research worldwide, the work he is most proud of is training many top-tier scientists and conservation leaders in the field. “I’m really happy about not just getting my students through their academic programs, but also getting them started on their careers,” Steneck says.
As he moves on to the next phase of his life, he leaves behind some advice for his former colleagues. “When you teach students how to think, and you urge them to see the bigger picture, that’s really a better path to take than just teaching the traditional scientific methods,” he says.