Spring has sprung, New England style. All the signs are there – the crocuses came up then got covered by sloppy, wet snow, and there’s a bunch of mud underneath it all. What New Englander doesn’t love this time of year? We get to think about shedding our winter wrappings and revealing our tender flesh to the warmer weather.
This happens in the ocean, too. Maine lobsters typically molt (shed the old shell and grow a new one) in the spring, as the water gets warmer. Lobstermen know this, and structure their fishing time around it. Richard Nelson, a lobsterman in Friendship, Maine, says he tries to catch the hard-shell lobsters in early spring before the molting starts, and then starts catching the new shedders right around when the summer tourists show up. The shedders are easier to eat, with their softer shells, and are sweeter tasting. But the shedders are also more fragile, and can’t be shipped very well, so they need to be eaten locally or sent to a processor.
“Lobstermen usually look forward to the shedders as newfound abundance,” said Richard. Lobsters that were previously too small to keep are bigger after they’ve shed, and are more likely to be of legal size. Normally, the appearance of the shedders is good news, but last year the lobsters in Maine were molting a month earlier than usual, which threw a monkey wrench into the whole fishing season. The tourists weren’t there yet to eat the shedders, and the processors were busy with Canadian lobsters, so they couldn’t take the Maine product.
And there are signs that it’s happening again this year, according to Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Warmer than usual ocean water could be driving the lobsters from their deeper winter homes towards their shallower molting grounds too early for the summer tourists and processors to consume.
This is not the only change we’re seeing. According to Bob, there is a lobster population boom underway from north of Cape Cod well up into Canada. They are increasing in number from year to year, to the point that they are might be overcrowding the ecosystem, which might make them more vulnerable to disease and is possibly leading to cannibalism.
Why are there so many lobsters? Bob thinks there might be few factors at play. First, he thinks it’s possible that water pollution south of Cape Cod might be inhibiting lobster recruitment, while waters to the north are cleaner. Temperature is probably a factor as well, for a couple of reasons. First, lobsters grow more quickly in warmer water. Newly hatched lobsters spend their larval stages near the surface of the water, where they are more exposed to predators, and have to develop adequately before they can settle on the relative safety of the ocean floor. When they grow faster, they reach safety faster. The second reason temperature could be helping lobster populations to increase is that warmer waters can increase the amount of food available to lobsters, which fuels their faster growth - they only grow quickly if there is enough to eat.
If you add it all up – warm, clean water with lots to eat, you get population growth. What usually keeps growth from becoming a boom is predators – in this case, fish like cod and haddock. Cod and haddock, you’ve probably heard, are not having a population boom. So with fewer things around to eat them, except for hungry tourists – and there’s a short season for those – the lobster continue to boom.
Spring is a time of change, of re-growth and renewal. It is also turning into a time of more bad news for New England lobstermen, who depend on a healthy lobster population with a predictable seasonal molt to make a living. Last year, even with the abundance of lobsters in the sea, fishermen struggled with low market prices due to the glut of product. The entire ecosystem in our New England waters is shifting, and it’s anybody’s guess how things will end up, but it seems clear that making a living from the sea is becoming more unpredictable.