A black sea bass lies in a lobster trap next to a lobster after being caught off midcoast Maine in this undated photo. Black sea bass are appearing more frequently in Maine waters in the summer, and fishermen think eventual harvests of the sought-after fish north of Cape Cod could help offset expected decreases in lobster catches as the Gulf of Maine continues to warm due to climate change. Photo courtesy of Chris Jamison. Credit: Chris Jamison photo

For the past two decades Maine’s lobster industry, which had $433 million worth of landings in 2017, has been lauded and envied as a model for how conservation practices can help a fishery thrive.

But if, as some have predicted, Maine’s lobster boom since 1990 reverses itself, lobstermen might find themselves having to catch something else in order to maintain their livelihoods out on the water. With an eye toward the future, many in Maine have been looking south to see what kind of emerging species other fishermen are catching as climate change disrupts the environment.

In southern New England, many fishermen have turned their attention to species such as Jonah crab and black sea bass, the numbers of which have increased as ocean temperatures warm and as lobster in the region have become more scarce. Maine’s lobster landings remain near historic highs, but some say the changes that have occurred south of Cape Cod are inevitable in the Gulf of Maine.

“I know it’s a hard concept to get around, but it’s going to happen,” Norbert Stamps, a Rhode Island fisherman, told a roomful of other fishermen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport in March. “It seems as the lobster declined [in southern New England], the crab increased. And sea bass are everywhere.”

The spread of black sea bass from the mid-Atlantic into southern New England has been a modest silver economic lining to the decline of lobster. In 2016, fishermen in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island together earned $2.38 million off a harvest of 677,000 pounds of black sea bass, which is three times the volume and six times the revenue they made off the species 20 years earlier.

“Sea bass are coming [to Maine],” Stamps said. “It’s a tremendous financial opportunity.”

Maine fishermen, scientists and regulators for years have acknowledged that a decline in the gulf’s lobster population will happen at some point, but still the state’s commercial fishing industry remains heavily reliant on lobster, which made up three-quarters of Maine’s total commercial fishing revenue in 2017.

But there are signs environmental changes already are under way in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99.9 percent of the world’s oceans. Species such as shrimp, urchins, and cod have declined in the Gulf of Maine, and the warming water temperatures that up to now have been beneficial to the survival rate of young lobsters may be moving beyond the creature’s comfort zone.

Other species such as squid and green crab have a growing presence in the gulf, though many of them show up only seasonally. Black sea bass, which migrate off the continental shelf in winter, also are showing up along Maine’s coast in the summer.

Marissa McMahan, a Georgetown native, said Tuesday that prior to 2012, when she worked as a sternman on her father’s lobster boat, he had caught maybe three or four black sea bass ever in his traps. That summer — which started out with an abnormally warm spring — they caught and released maybe 30 of the fish.

Credit: Courtesy Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

“It was really shocking,” said McMahan, who now works in Brunswick as a senior fisheries scientist for the environmental science nonprofit Manomet. “We started seeing this fish in our traps, and I didn’t know what it was. We really didn’t know anything about black sea bass in the Gulf of Maine.”

McMahan said the fish can grow to between 1 and 2 feet long, is “very aggressive” and is known to eat smaller lobsters. It can be found in the summer off southern Maine and in pockets along the midcoast, she added, but there aren’t enough in the gulf to support a viable commercial fishery.

As the gulf gets warmer, however, there likely will be enough in the coming decades, she said, but Maine fishermen still would have to get approval from regulators to catch them. There is high market demand for black sea bass, she said, but there is not a lot of historical data on the abundance of the species, which has resulted in regulators taking a conservative approach in increasing the species’ catch limits.

“It’s an incredibly lucrative fish, but it’s a data-poor species,” McMahan said.

States that have significant black sea bass fisheries — Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia among them — are lobbying to have their allocations increased even though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering reduction in the overall annual catch quota, she said.

Lobstermen often catch black sea bass, McMahan said, because the fish tend to gravitate toward underwater structures such as traps or pier pilings, rather than to the open water column or to broad, flat sections of ocean bottom, which is where regulators often conduct catch surveys. If Maine were to develop a black sea bass fishery, she said, fishermen could use techniques and equipment that are very similar to what they use now to catch lobster, which would help with the transition.

But, as it stands, all black sea bass that show up in lobster traps in Maine have to be released.

Long Island lobsterman Steve Train said Friday that black sea bass have become a more common sight in Casco Bay in recent years, though the ones he’s seen are on the small side. Some years he and other fishermen in the area “see quite a few,” though not enough to support a viable fishery, he added.

“We didn’t use to see them,” Train said. “This is something new.”

If lobstermen could sustainably keep and sell the ones they find in their traps now, they would, he said, and their interest in doing so will only increase. Most fishermen keep an eye out for ways to boost their income on the water, he said, but trying to break into other existing fisheries that have shrunk and where competition remains fierce can be quite a challenge.

As a result, many fishermen have considered existing fisheries that may have growth potential such as sea bass or crab, or emerging ones such as seaweed or bivalve shellfish aquaculture.

“Fishermen have always adapted,” Train said. “We need these new fisheries to turn to. If we want to keep our seafood economy, we have to be able to diversify.”

Some wild-caught fisheries in Maine have grown over the past decade. The annual values of Maine’s herring, scallop and baby eel fisheries each have gone up by roughly $10 million to $15 million in that time, while the value and volume of the combined harvest of all crab species, including Jonah, in 2017 reached their highest levels since the mid-to-late 2000s. These gains, however, do not make up for the drop in Maine’s lobster landings from 2016 to 2017,which fell by nearly 22 million pounds and by more than $100 million in value, from $540 million to $433 million.

The state has been exploring ways to expand its commercial fisheries. In the early 2000s, it considered creating a Jonah crab license program separate from the lobster fishery, but dropped the idea due to lack of interest.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

A few years ago, the state Department of Marine Resources added black sea bass to the list of fish that can be harvested with a commercial pelagic and anadromous fishing license — despite the fact that Maine has no commercial allocation from interstate regulators for the species. Other fish that can be harvested with the same license include herring, menhaden, whiting, spiny dogfish, river herring, mackerel, squid, butterfish, scup, smelt and shad.

In 2014, the state relaxed restrictions on harvesting green crabs with a goal of putting a dent in invasive species’ growing presence in Maine. The crabs have had a significant impact on the state’s softshell clam industry, which has produced between $12 million and $22 million worth of harvested clams each year since 2001.

Fishermen, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs have worked in recent years to develop a commercial market for green crabs, either as seafood or for some other application, but demand for the small shore crabs has remained very low.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....