Lobster population is shifting north; ocean warming blamed

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The lobster population has crashed to the lowest levels on record in southern New England while climbing to heights never before seen in the cold waters off Maine and other northern reaches – a geographic shift that scientists attribute in large part to the warming of the ocean.

The trend is driving lobstermen in Connecticut and Rhode Island out of business, ending a centuries-old way of life.

Restaurant diners, supermarket shoppers and summer vacationers aren’t seeing much difference in price or availability, since the overall supply of lobsters is pretty much steady.

But because of the importance of lobsters to New England’s economy, history and identity, the northward shift stands as a particularly sad example of how climate change may be altering the natural range of many animals and plants.

In 2013, the number of adult lobsters in New England south of Cape Cod slid to about 10 million, just one-fifth the total in the late 1990s, according to a report issued this month by regulators. The lobster catch in the region sank to about 3.3 million pounds in 2013, from a peak of about 22 million in 1997.

The declines are “largely in response to adverse environmental conditions, including increasing water temperatures over the last 15 years,” along with continued fishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said in a summary of the report.

In northern New England, meanwhile, lobsters are booming.

The population in the Gulf of Maine — a body of water that touches Canada, Maine, New Hampshire and the northern shore of Massachusetts — and in the Georges Bank fishing grounds farther out to sea has reached record highs, more than doubling to about 250 million adult lobsters since the mid-1990s, the report said.

Seaside lobster bakes will probably continue to be the cornerstone of the summer for thousands of southern New England vacationers every year. But more and more of those lobsters will come from the north rather than local waters.

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