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Ambitious UMaine Study Examines Link Between Arctic Melting and Lobster Stocks

The University of Maine is leading a $3 million award from the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic Program (NNA) in a three-year collaborative research study on the connection between the warming Arctic Ocean and the rapid changes in New England’s and Atlantic Canada’s lobster fisheries. The project launched on January 1st. In recent years, the Labrador Current, which moves cold, oxygen-rich water from the Arctic southward along the Nova Scotian coast and into the Gulf of Maine, has wavered in its intensity due to increased melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet. The study hopes to better understand the current and future effects of these changes on the Northwest Atlantic marine ecosystem, the lobster fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

“It’s a big project,” said Rick Wahle, executive director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute and professor in the School of Marine Sciences. “It’ll allow us to connect the dots between the rapid changes we’re seeing in the Arctic and changes witnessed at the mid-latitudes of the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of St. Lawrence.” The study brings together physical oceanographers, marine ecosystem and fishery scientists, economists and social scientists from UMaine, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Columbia University, Florida State University and Memorial University of Newfoundland, along with fishing industry and government agency personnel from the U.S. and Canada.

Melting ice in the Arctic has already had an effect on Gulf of Maine oceanography. What does the future hold for its lobster stocks? (WHOI photo)

The project will build on existing computer models that incorporate current oceanographic data to predict altered circulation patterns in the Labrador Sea and Northwest Atlantic. As the influence of the Labrador Current diminishes, Gulf Stream water, which is warmer, saltier and nutrient-poor, is being felt more strongly, altering the productivity of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. Marine ecosystem scientists will model the consequences of those changes as they percolate up the food chain. Already well documented is a dramatic ecosystem regime shift since 2010 triggered by these changes: the weakening influence of the northern currents has resulted in a decline of the tiny phytoplankton at the base of the food web, and in turn, a diminished supply of zooplankton that feed everything from to herring to the North Atlantic right whale, and even lobster larvae.

Fisheries scientists will explore how those changes could influence the life history of lobsters and how different management strategies could help keep the fishery sustainable. Economists and social scientists will evaluate the consequences of different scenarios on the lobster fishery and communities that depend upon it.

The scope of the new study is unusual. “It’s pushing the envelope to a new larger scale. I’m excited and humbled to be collaborating with such a diverse group of talented scientists at in this more global context,” Wahle said.

The project draws on decades of cross-border collaboration among researchers, many of whom have been taking part in long-standing monitoring programs such as the American Lobster Settlement Index (ALSI), and the Environmental Monitoring on Lobster Traps (eMolt) program. “It’s that network of collaboration that allows us to move forward with this study,” Wahle said.

Wahle hopes that the project ultimately will help improve the economic resilience of coastal communities who depend so heavily on lobster fishing. “Lobster represents about 80% of commercial fisheries value in Maine. We’re perilously dependent on this single species. A collapse could have devastating effects,” Wahle said. “Developing accurate forecasts gives us the lead time to consider our choices.” The models also allow the team to study “what if” scenarios – for example, how does a one degree increase in water temperature, or a change in legal size, affect the sustainability of the lobster fishery, and in turn, the economic well-being of a coastal community in the, and how does that differ under in the U.S. versus the Canadian lobster management regime.

“It’s really gratifying that NSF sees this as a worthy project. Most of the other projects funded through this program take place in the Arctic. We’re the single project looking at Arctic impacts to fisheries at lower latitudes,” Wahle said. “They are excited to see what we produce.”

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