For 13 years I was a lobsterman from Cliff Island. Lobstermen are close observers of the natural world. When you climb into your boat each morning you are a witness to wildness and beauty. But that is half the story. We have worry and warnings. Global warming, climate change and carbon pollution are disturbing the ocean and threatening our way of life. It used to be that only scientists could detect rising temperatures or alarming changes in fish stocks. Now almost every fisherman and lobsterman on the coast is aware of these changes in our everyday environment.
Here in the Gulf of Maine the clues are all around us. Dogfish now far outnumber cod and haddock. They prey on young cod, haddock and other groundfish. They have become the dominant species in the gulf. The scientific data back up what lobstermen and fishermen are seeing firsthand. James Sulikowski, a biologist at the University of New England, says, “There are an estimated 230,000 metric tons of spawning dogfish in the Gulf of Maine compared with only 10,000 metric tons of spawning cod. That’s a 23-to-1 ratio.”
Recent data from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute indicate that the Gulf of Maine is warming 99 percent faster than the world’s oceans. As waters warm in the Gulf of Maine, cod are moving north to colder water. This mainstay of the coastal economy for centuries may never return, even with stringent fishing regulations in place. Menhaden, herring, hake and northern shrimp populations are dangerously depleted. And the remnant populations of these species are migrating to colder waters. Other sea life we’re not used to in the gulf, like blue crabs, black sea bass and longfin squid, are turning up in fishermen’s nets.
The warming of the Gulf of Maine is fueling a northern shift in species ranges, including lobsters. Data show a recent sharp downturn in lobster settlement for the Gulf of Maine and southern Nova Scotia. In contrast, the northern side of Prince Edward Island in Canada has seen a steady increase in larval settlements. The initial size of lobster settlements is a strong indicator in determining the future strength of the area’s mature lobster population. This means eastern Maine is projected to have a downward trend in fishery recruitment. While the overall numbers are still quite high, the height of the lobster boom in Maine is beginning to pass and move to Canadian waters.
Warmer waters have already led to the near-collapse of lobster fisheries in southern New England states like Rhode Island. A range migration north coupled with lobster shell disease and mass die-offs greatly contributed to the decline in these lobster fisheries.
These threats don’t necessarily spell a doomsday for Maine lobsters, but they do provide us with a warning. And an opportunity. These are man-made imbalances. We made the problem, and we can fix it — indeed, we have a moral obligation to act. As a first step, let’s pass the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The standards would be the most significant step the United States has ever taken to reduce the pollution causing climate change. The proposed rules are a big deal because power plants are the elephant in the room when it comes to carbon pollution. They emit 40 percent of total U.S. carbon pollution. These plants have gotten off the hook for so long because energy companies have such tremendous influence in Washington.
I fervently hope Sen. Susan Collins will join Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree and give her full support to the EPA’s new power plant rules. Our fishing way of life depends on passing this critical legislation. It’s clear that the ocean and our way of life are in trouble. Fast-moving changes in water temperature and ocean life in the Gulf of Maine make it urgent that we act now to reduce carbon pollution.
In order to protect ourselves, we have to start protecting nature. We can’t keep polluting and depleting our natural resources — our nature-provided health and wealth. Lobstering and fishing are traditions passed generation to generation. For the sake of our children and future generations, we need to do everything we can to curb global warming, ensure healthy and productive coastal waters, and pass on livelihoods that are backbones to building strong Maine families and communities.
Edward Reiner of South Portland is a 13-year veteran of Maine’s lobster industry and now works with Environment Maine.