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Scientists: Maine Lobster Industry Threatened by Climate Change
07/02/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

It's that time of year when native Mainers and summer tourists alike don plastic bibs and get crackin' on succulent Maine lobsters. Last year lobstermen landed about $340 million worth of these coveted crustaceans, generating $1 billion worth of economic activity to the state's economy. But there's a largely hidden threat to all that bounty, according some scientists. Susan Sharon has more.

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You might not know it from their abundance in Maine restaurants, or by the number of traps in Casco Bay, but scientists warn that lobsters are facing a double whammy of a threat: climate change and ocean acidification. Dr. Rick Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center, says the effects are already evident in southern New England.

"You go to southern New England and we're seeing the decimating effects of stressfully warm summers on lobster survival," Wahle says. "There've been mass mortalities in Long Island Sound and disease effects. But you come to the northern parts of their range, into the Gulf of Maine, and we're actually seeing an explosion of lobsters."

Wahle was among the speakers at a press conference on Portland's waterfront, along with representatives from Maine's Lobster Promotion Council and Restaurant Association. They're teaming up with the Natural Resources Council of Maine to spread the word about the threat of climate change.

Wahle says warming temperatures to the south are bringing more lobster competitors and predators, along with other biological risks, such as new diseases. Conditions in the Gulf of Maine might still be just right for lobsters now, but Wahle says one needs only to examine the latest warming trends to get a sense of what the future could hold.

"Ocean temperatures since 1980 have warmed at an average rate of about 1 degree Celsius every 40 years. But since 2004, that has accelerated to 1 degree Celcius every four years," Wahle says. "And so there's about a ten-fold increase in that rate of change."

The source of the problem is carbon pollution, primarily from power plants, but also from cars and trucks. And this carbon overload doesn't just take the form of warmer temperatures. It's also contributing to ocean acidification, a process in which dissolving carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid. The acid threatens shelled organisms such as mussels, clams and lobsters. Scientists estimate that over the past 200 years ocean acidification has increased by more than 30 percent.

"We care about our resource, but also we believe in making a stand when leadership is needed," says John Ready, the co-owner of Ready's Seafood, a wholesale lobster company, and Catch A Piece of Maine, a direct consumer online business that he runs with his brother. They also just opened a processing plant.

Ready is joining environmental and tourism organizations to support President Obama's climate change initiative unveiled last week. Among other things, it calls for tighter carbon emissions limits for power plants. To promote the plan statewide, the group is using the slogan, "Help Maine Lobsters Keep Their Cool."

"What we've noticed is with warmer temperatures - and if we continue to see increasing temperatures- lobsters are more likely to stay out in deeper water or migrate east," Ready says.

Having Maine lobsters migrate away from in-shore infastructure would not only cripple the lobster industry, but Marianne LaCroix of the Lobster Promotion Council says their disappearance from the dinner table would forever alter the state's image in the eyes of tourists.

"People all over the world love Maine lobster for its excellent flavor and texture, and they visit Maine to enjoy lobster at its source," LaCroix says. "We hope that this fishery will remain strong for future generations."

The group is calling on Maine's congressional delegation to support the president's climate change plan, and to resist the influence of the coal industry, which is already working to defeat it.


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