I’m quite partial to lobster. And my husband is from Maine, so every couple years when we head east to visit friends and family, I get to go on a lobster binge. Legend has it that during one week-long stay I tucked away at least a dozen lobster rolls. Exaggeration or not, you can imagine my delight in learning that the price of lobster has hit rock bottom this season (we’re headed back east for a wedding in September).

Lobster for $3.99 per pound in Portland, ME? It’s too good to be true.

But deep down, as someone who grew up in a commercial fishing family, I know it’s more like too good to be good.

Lobsters—and Lobstermen—Affected by Climate Change

Lobster Thermidor? How about lobster thermometer?

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  • As Center for American Progress shows, there’s more reason to be alarmed than delighted. There are hidden ecological and economic costs to these lobster prices. In fact, this is a good example of climate change impacts that might seem like good news for consumers or other groups on the surface but can devastate local communities in the near term and bode ill for the long haul.

    The immediate impacts on Maine’s lobster families are stark. With prices too low to break even, many lobster boats are sitting idle in port and some families and businesses likely face financial ruin.

    Here’s how the Wall Street Journal summed it up:

    Prices at the dock have fallen to as low as $1.25 a pound in some areas—roughly 70% below normal and a nearly 30-year-low for this time of year, according to fishermen, researchers and officials. The reason: an unseasonably warm winter created a supply glut throughout the Atlantic lobster fishery.

    The Wall Street Journal account failed to mention human-caused climate change as a factor in warming seas (Neither did the Boston Globe, nor the Associated Press or Patriot Ledger or any other mainstream newspaper I could find). But WSJ quoted Bill Adler, head of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, who described the two main effects of the warm winter on prices:

    1) Unusually mild temperatures allowed Canadian lobstermen, who typically fish in the early spring, to bring in large catches.

    2) Crustaceans molt (shed their exoskeleton) in late spring and early summer. The soft molting lobsters—called rags—arrived six weeks earlier than normal. Rags fetch lower prices because they contain less meat and can’t be shipped live (part of the reason that customers elsewhere in the US won’t see bargain prices).

    As Center for American Progress put it:

    This year, rags started showing up early in traps, and many in the industry, including Bob Bayer who heads the Maine Lobster Institute, trace this to warming ocean temperatures. As Andrew Pershing of the University of Maine and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute asserted at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine in June were equivalent to average July temperatures. It’s no coincidence then that lobstermen are seeing rags a month early.

    My husband Gus eating a lobster roll.

    My husband Gus eating a lobster roll. Photo: Anna Fahey.

    Maine’s lobsters are unusually abundant. I guess that’s some good news for the species. But warming may take its toll on lobsters in other ways that weaken stocks over time and continue to push their habitat northward. The CAP article points out that recent work by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the “overall geographic range of fish populations in the northwest Atlantic and the Gulf of Maine have shifted northward in direct proportion to warming ocean temperatures, meaning new species now live in regions that were previously dominated by other species.” Plus, according to a study by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, prolonged exposure to waters warmer than 20° Celsius (68° Fahrenheit) causes stress to respiratory and immune systems in lobsters, and leads to higher incidence of shell disease and acidosis (excessive amounts of acid in the blood).

    Overfishing of cod (lobster’s natural predator) is a factor in Maine’s lobster stock as well—but changing environmental conditions like warming seas is tougher than altering industry behavior like overfishing.

    Lobster’s Northwest Counterparts

    Lobster fishing communities aren’t alone. Center for American Progress director of ocean policy Michael Conathan writes that “there’s no denying that the marine effects of climate change are already being felt in many of the world’s fisheries.” He ties the lobster story to fisheries in our neck of the woods:

    A study published earlier this month in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences found “rapid and consistent decreases” in the populations of sockeye salmon runs from Puget Sound, Washington, to the Yakutat Peninsula in southeast Alaska due to ocean warming. Warmer water provides more favorable conditions for less valuable species, including pink salmon, meaning they are more likely to out-compete sockeye in the ecosystem. And similar to lobster in Maine, salmon is big business in Alaska: In 2010 Alaskan fishermen landed $263 million worth of sockeye, a major component of a fishing industry that creates more than 80,000 jobs in the state.

    Seafood’s Other Carbon Problem—Acidification

    And, as we’ve written here before, when we burn fossil fuels our oceans must absorb excess carbon, making our seas increasingly acidic. Ocean acidification makes it more and more difficult for many sea creatures—oysters and clams, for example—to grow shells. And like lobster fishers in Maine, local shellfish businesses are suffering. As Sightline’s Jen Langston explained it recently:

    These local drivers are combining with rising global carbon dioxide emissions to make local waters increasingly acidic and put the Northwest on the leading edge of destructive changes in ocean chemistry.  For example, seawater in the depths of Hood Canal is already among the most corrosive found anywhere on earth. As that trend accelerates, it could profoundly change our marine systems, what appears on our dinner plates and whether shellfish farmers and, potentially, commercial fishermen will be able to stay in business.

    Shellfish is a big deal in the Northwest—a $270 million industry in Washington State alone. It’s worrisome enough for local communities that Washington’s Governor Gregoire has set up a blue ribbon panel—the first of its kind in the nation—to draft recommendations for dealing with ocean acidification.

    The effects of acidification on lobster require further research. Surprisingly, one study conducted at Woods Hole indicates that some species, including the lobster, actually increase their ability to form shells in more acidic water. However, as the Natural Resources Defense Council reported,  Justin Ries, lead author of the Woods Hole study cautioned (in Oceanus magazine) that, like low prices for my beloved lobster rolls, it’s not reason to cheer. The energy consumption required to build shells in a lower pH environment for such species “may come at the expense of other critical life processes, such as tissue growth and reproduction.”

    The lesson here, for somebody who likes to consume seafood, and as somebody who grew up watching fishing families struggle to get by, is that climate impacts are here. Climate change is happening now and it’s affecting real people and towns. It’s not just some far off problem for polar bears or “future generations.”

    The Portland, Maine, newspaper, the Republic, quoted one lobster fisherman saying “It’s a disaster, that’s all I can tell you. We’re just going to have to suffer through it, I guess.” But suffering through one bad season may not be an option when warming is likely to increase year by year. The lesson for journalists should be that reporting on the lobster glut and other fisheries issues these days without mentioning climate change or acidification is like writing about extreme weather without so much as a nod to the human-caused warming that made conditions ripe for disaster.

    I’ll eat my lobster rolls when in Maine this summer—it’s the least I can do to support the local fishers. But I won’t do it without wondering about the future of those succulent crustaceans and the quaint Maine ports that they have supported for so long.