- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

FRIENDSHIP, Maine - It’s summer on Maine’s coast, but this morning, Philip Bramhall pulls on a hooded fleece shell with his rubber overalls to heave 50-pound lobster traps around his boat’s deck.He doesn’t mind the early chill and wet fog. Lobsters like cold, and Mr. Bramhalllikes lobsters.

Maine’s lobstermen have been hauling up phenomenal numbers for almost 15 years. Their 62.3 million pounds in 2002 set a record — triple the typical catch during the 1980s. That’s more than $200 million worth of lobster and by far the dominant share of the Northeast’s most valuable fishery. But can it last?

Starting in the late 1990s, in the southern reaches of its near-shore commercial range, the big-clawed American lobster — prized for its delicate, sweet flesh — has been withering at an alarming rate from New York state to Massachusetts.

Government biologists have said the lobster is overfished off the Northeast, but that doesn’t account for Maine’s extravagant abundance. Researchers in various localities have blamed the trouble on diseases, pollutants and predators. But that fails to explain any larger pattern.

In recent months, however, a consensus has emerged among scientists who blame the shift on global warming.

The theory holds that warming is already killing off the American lobster in its southern near-shore range, where it lives near its heat tolerance. In Maine, where it is well within its comfort zone, more warmth — up to a point — might be making it proliferate.

If temperatures rise too high, though, even Maine ultimately might become less hospitable to lobsters, some researchers say. Last year’s state catch fell back almost 14 percent to 53.9 million pounds.

“We’re hoping our cold water will keep it to the south, because so much of our economy is dependent on lobstering,” says Pat White, chief executive officer of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “If it hit us, it’d be a disaster.”

Five generations of Bramhalls have fished lobsters in Maine. Since about 1990, times have been fat for Friendship and much of Maine’s coastline. Today, most families in this village of about 1,200 live off lobsters. They are fishermen, dealers, trap makers, boat builders, marine outfitters. Potentially lucrative lobstering tempts teenagers from high school.

Mr. Bramhall is grossing about $150,000 during the April-to-January lobstering season, almost double his former business. He has added a family room and two-car garage to his house. He has bought three new pickups and a camper. He intends to build a bigger boat.

He shrugs off government biologists who predict a lobster drop-off, based on what he calls arcane calculations concocted in stuffy offices.

“They don’t see what we see out here when we haul up a trap. You might see 25 to 30 small lobsters in it,” he says.

The first signs of distress in the American lobster industry appeared in the western Long Island Sound near New York City in fall 1999 and slowly spread north. Boats began pulling up more and more lobsters with bumpy black scars from a bacterial disease that could bore right through their shells. They were alive, but no one would eat the nasty-looking creatures.

By 2000, the catch off eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island was crashing. The take in Massachusetts began to shrink the next year and farther north in New Hampshire a year later.

Scientists and lobstermen searched for a culprit. On western Long Island Sound, it turned out the lobsters were infected with a parasitic amoeba.

Suspicion turned on mosquito pesticides sprayed to control West Nile virus. About 1,100 lobstermen collectively sued pesticide makers, claiming $300 million in losses. The case awaits trial. Elsewhere, chlorine from sewage plants fell under suspicion.

Scientists also have found more lobster predators, like striped bass, in waters south of Maine. Maybe they were devouring more lobsters, but that didn’t account for the outbreaks of disease.

By official standards, lobstermen are overfishing Northeastern waters. They are leaving too few lobsters to breed later generations, even in Maine, according to the calculations of government biologists. Some predict a drastic decline in Maine.

For the moment, though, something seems to be shielding Maine. The more southern a state, the more its catch has dwindled, according to an Associated Press analysis of the latest complete state data. New York’s lobster take collapsed by 75 percent from 1999 to 2002. Moving progressively northward, the drops attenuate: Connecticut, 59 percent; Rhode Island, 53 percent; Massachusetts, 14 percent; New Hampshire, 3 percent. Government estimates of the lobster population nose-dived during the same period.

Two summers ago, yet another lobster disease turned up. Orange grit was clogging the gills of lobsters around eastern Long Island Sound. Under study, it proved to be calcinosis.

Alistair Dove, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, got to thinking about what could drive a lobster’s metabolism and, by extension, cause such a metabolic disease.

“That was the first time we thought of temperature,” he says.

If overheating was making the lobsters sick, excess acid should accumulate in their blood, like a human sprinter building up acid in his muscles. Mr. Dove’s research team began testing lobsters for the telltale acid. Last September, they found it.

Maybe cold-blooded lobsters in their southernmost range have been stressed by a slow rise in water temperature, Mr. Dove’s team theorized. Recent seasonal heat spikes, starting from the higher norms, might have overwhelmed many lobsters. In Maine, by contrast, warmth likely has accelerated their life cycle, yielding more adults and more active ones. They would be easier to find and trap.

During the five years ending in 2002, the surface waters off Boston were more than 2 degrees higher than their historical averages, according to government data. In recent summers, the temperatures in some waters off southern New England have increased into the low 70s, the upper limit of what lobsters can tolerate, researchers say.

This past spring, about 60 lobster researchers brainstormed in Groton, Conn. They agreed that, perhaps more than any other single factor, warming water seems to account for the lobster’s decline, several participants say.

Some fear that if temperatures keep pushing upward, even Maine’s fishery will sink. Shell disease already has begun to appear there.

“What is possible for us to control?” asks Josef Idoine, a federal lobster biologist. “By and large, what you’re left with is the harvesting rate.”

So, many managers argue for tighter fishing rules, even if there is no guarantee that they will do enough.

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