PORTLAND — Top lobster scientists are meeting to look at fundamental changes that have affected lobsters in recent years after a summer that featured a potentially record-breaking haul in Maine and Canada and a crash in wholesale prices.
The Maine Sea Grant program at the University of Maine is hosting a conference in Portland beginning Tuesday focusing on issues such as warming ocean temperatures, the changing food web and seafood economics. About 135 people have registered, including scientists from the United States, Canada and Europe, regulators and industry representatives.
The conference comes when the Maine harvest is going gangbusters, the southern New England fishery has virtually collapsed and ocean temperatures are warming, which could have a profound effect on the lobster population, said symposium co-chairman Rick Wahle, a University of Maine research professor.
“Lobsters have the potential to be a sort of poster child for climate change impact and the impacts of human activity,” Wahle said.
The symposium, which wraps up Friday, features more than 80 scientific talks. The goal is to promote a broad dialogue about lobsters to better understand and manage them.
Lobsters are caught roughly from Virginia to Newfoundland, with Maine and Nova Scotia having the largest harvests. In Maine, last year’s catch topped 100 million pounds for the first time, and this year’s haul is expected to be even higher.
The conference is particularly timely, coming just months after warm ocean waters were blamed for lobsters shedding their shells weeks earlier than usual in Maine waters last spring. That led to a strong early harvest that created havoc within the industry, caused prices to plummet and made tensions boil over between Maine and Canadian lobstermen after Canadians blockaded plants that were processing Maine-caught lobsters.
Michael Fogarty, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Falmouth, Mass., said he expects much of the conference to focus on climate change. Fogarty will talk about how the lobster population is shifting to the northeast because of warming ocean temperatures.
“We have to work with our folks in the industry to try and let them know what we think is coming down the pike and what are some of the things we need to do to adapt to it,” Fogarty said.
The state of the lobster fishery is a study in contrasts, Wahle said. The harvests in Maine and Canada have broken records in recent years, while the population off southern New England and Long Island Sound has been plagued by disease and massive die-offs.
It’s important to get an idea of what might happen with the lobster population in future years, especially in a place such as Maine, where so many coastal communities rely on lobster for their livelihoods, Wahle said.
Besides biologists and oceanographers, social scientists also are attending the conference.