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Consider the Lobstermen: Climate Change Threatens Connecticut Lobsters

Small towns cluster along the northern edge of Long Island Sound. Coastal marshes and inlets lie beside brightly painted homes, lighthouses, and piers. On a Sunday afternoon in Guilford, Connecticut, steeples and boat masts jut out near the water’s edge; faint bells ring and birds caw in the distance. But the quiet here belies the seismic changes happening just a few miles from the shore.

For Connecticut’s lobstermen, Long Island Sound has transformed into an aquatic desert over the past 20 years. The estuary’s lobster population has hit historically low levels and continues to decline precipitously. In the 1990s, fishermen hauled hundreds of pounds of lobster to Guilford and other Connecticut towns every day. Long Island Sound fisheries brought in 3.7 million pounds of lobster in 1998; in 2015, they yielded just 200,000.

A subtle force drives this dramatic change. Average water temperatures in Long Island Sound have ticked up over the last four decades. In 1975, the average winter temperature recorded at a station off the New London coast was 36.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In the anomalously warm winter of 2012, the same station observed a record high average temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

The temperature change adds yet another environmental strain to a long list of existing pressures. Habitat destruction and aquatic hypoxia—unsustainably low oxygen levels caused by pollution-driven algal blooms—have jeopardized the Sound’s ecosystems for decades. Despite strides in the 21st century to curtail pollution runoff into Long Island Sound, climate change has squeezed lobster populations out of the Sound toward colder waters up north. As New York and Connecticut lobstermen have caught little in recent years, their counterparts in Maine brought home over 120 million pounds of catch in 2012.

“It’s been getting harder, you know. The lobsters just aren’t here anymore,” said Aldo Candido, a wholesaler who has worked at Lobster Bin, a Greenwich marketplace, for ten years. “For a while now, we’re getting most of our lobster from Nova Scotia, from Canada,” he told The Politic.

Around the Connecticut coast, fisheries large and small have cut back on costs—many by laying off workers—as their income diminishes. “You have an expectation that you’ll have X amount of earnings, and when that doesn’t occur, through no control of your own, it can be pretty devastating,” said another fisherman, who works for a lobster tourism company in Massachusetts, in an interview with The Politic. “You learn to plan and be more conservative with your spending.”

Lobsters are not the only species affected by rising temperatures. A 2015 report published in Science details how Atlantic cod struggled to adapt to warmer New England waters. For over half a millennium, cod fishing thrived in New England. But in the early 1970s, overfishing led to a population collapse. Climate change, in addition to the overfishing, meant that the population never rebounded to its former magnitude.

As lobster, cod, and other species move northward, southern species native to the mid-Atlantic are taking their place in Long Island Sound. The ongoing Long Island Sound Study revealed that warm-water species outnumbered cold-water species for the first time in 2002 and outnumbered them two-to-one in 2017. North Atlantic black sea bass are reportedly encroaching on parts of the Sound that were previously too cold to harbor them. The consequences of the population changes are difficult to predict. Black sea bass, for example, prey on lobster, but scientists don’t yet know what this means for the ecosystem in the long-term, according to the Connecticut Mirror.

Locals and environmental advocates have called for stringent measures to prevent overfishing of the dwindling lobster population. Over the past decade, Connecticut has adopted new restrictions, including a 2015 ban on selling female lobsters carrying eggs. Additionally, a 2006 regulation states that a lobster’s carapace, the part of the shell which reflects the lobster’s age, must be larger than 3.3 inches in order to harvest and sell the lobster. These regulations aim to preserve young lobsters and reproducing females in the hope that the adult lobster population will stabilize in subsequent generations.

“It takes lobsters anywhere from five to nine years to grow into the fisheries,” said Richard Wahle, a professor at the University of Maine and director of the university’s Lobster Institute. Wahle has been studying lobsters for over thirty years. In an interview with The Politic, he recounted how his team developed what is now known as the American Lobster Settlement Index (ALSI) in the 1990s.

ALSI leverages data on lobster eggs and larvae to make accurate predictions on future lobster populations from southern New England to Canada. Lobsters require years to develop, so alarming decreases in larval populations allow ALSI to warn the industry long before a decline in adult lobsters occurs.

“We’ve developed a multi-dimensional tool to see how southern New England and the Gulf of Maine might respond to future climate changes,” Wahle said. “Changes in the food web, shell disease, and several ecological factors are included.” Annual reports released by the ALSI provide a detailed view of lobster populations in different regions, depths, and water temperatures.

By publishing data, holding workshops, and hosting conferences, the University of Maine Lobster Institute informs government regulators on lobster fishing and advises fisheries on sustainable harvesting. “[We] bring the fishing industry and other stakeholders like fishery managers together with the talent at the University of Maine to address industry and fishery priorities,” Wahle said. Data allow researchers, policymakers, and fisheries to decide on targets and caps before it is too late.

Marcos Voyatzis, a lobster fisherman from California, says regulations on the lobster industry can prove immensely beneficial. “A couple of years ago [the state government] put a trap limit, which helped a lot,” he told The Politic, referring to a recent cap on the number of lobster traps a fishery can place in the Pacific Ocean off Southern California. Despite the fact that Southern California’s lobster population is relatively stable and healthy, overfishing threatened to disrupt the equilibrium.

“Before, there was no trap limit, so anybody could put out whatever they want[ed]—eight, nine hundred traps,” Voyatzis explained. “Now it’s 300 traps, so it’s a lot less gear in the water, you know?” Voyatzis believes that lobster density will increase due to this regulation. “Eventually you’re going to fish with less gear but catch more lobster.”

But in Connecticut, many lobstermen oppose regulations. There is little lobster to begin with, and lobstermen often find that regulations make it harder for their fisheries to stay competitive in international markets. Further complicating the problem are Chinese tariffs, which curb Connecticut fishery exports to their largest market.

Richard Burroughs, an adjunct professor of coastal science and policy at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, told The Politic that by regulating lobster traps, the Connecticut government is missing the big picture: rising water temperatures. Burroughs and others in academia have pushed governments and fisheries to change the way they examine threats to marine populations. They argue for a perspective that considers the full spectrum of factors that affect the health of populations.

“In the case of climate change, you are now left with a biological system that ostensibly fails because of [a] physical change that the government does not have any authority to deal with,” Burroughs said.

The government can institute any number of biological and physical controls, such as banning certain pesticides to improve marine ecosystem health. Yet no matter how many are passed, Burroughs explained, regulations are unlikely to mitigate the effects of climate change in the coming decade.

A complete moratorium on lobster fishing seems increasingly likely, and statewide closures could devastate Connecticut’s maritime economy. The state’s lobster fisheries are a 100-million-dollar industry, even though an exodus of employees from fisheries is already underway.

Shutdowns would have striking cultural impacts. In the last century, lobsters have become embedded in the cultural fabric, local cuisine, and tourism of Connecticut. Rotary clubs draw hundreds with annual lobster festivals, including one in Chester that has run for nearly 50 years. In 1939, Harry Perry, who ran a Milford restaurant, developed a special dish to please a frequent customer—the iconic lobster roll, now served in restaurants across the U.S. and Canada.

Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Long Island Sound lobster decline. The unusually warm summer of 1999 prompted lobsters to migrate to colder pockets deep in the Sound. In September of that year, Hurricane Floyd whirled up the eastern seaboard, causing extensive damage from Florida to Connecticut. The storm had dissipated by the time it reached southern New England, but torrential downpours and gusts persisted. As Floyd churned Long Island Sound, warm surface water mingled with the deep water where the lobsters resided. Severely stressed, the lobsters experienced high levels of shell disease and suffered a massive die-off.

Lobsters in the Sound had bounced back from devastating years before, but the 1999 decline never reversed.

The first half of the 1990s saw lobster fishing in the Sound at its peak, similar to Maine’s industry today. Even as millions more pounds of lobsters are harvested annually, lobster fishermen in Maine are approaching the boom with caution. Taking a lesson from the crash in Connecticut, northern lobster fisheries are coordinating closely with researchers to manage lobster harvests.

Avoiding the temptation to harvest as much as possible could be key to allowing Maine’s billion-dollar lobster industry to reap benefits long into the future. But researchers in the state are unsure if, or when, Maine’s lobster boom will end. Senator Angus King (I-ME) has expressed concern that this uncertainty may result in job losses if lobster migrations catch the industry off-guard.

Down south, though, a painful reckoning is imminent. As the number of active lobstermen in Connecticut falls below 100, an ominous question hangs over them: how long until their livelihoods disappear with the lobsters?

Wahle is not optimistic. “The temperatures are excessive during the summers, and if projections for warming hold true, the waters will be increasingly worse for lobsters as decades pass,” he said. He speculates that lobsters may not survive in Long Island Sound past 2050.

Burroughs is more hopeful. When asked if he believed there will be any lobsters in 2050, his response was quick. “I bet there will be.” But he immediately responded with his own question. “Will there be a commercial fishery?”

“Well,” he said resignedly, “you can probably go around and tell.”