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Notable University of Maine Lobster Researcher Retires

First published in Landings, September 2023

Rick Wahle has been a presence in the world of lobsters for decades. But as of August 31, Wahle retired from the University of Maine and his role as Director of the Lobster Institute. Assistant director Chris Cash is acting as interim director.

Wahle, who describes himself as a “Jersey boy,” came to Maine in 1985 to work as a graduate student with Robert Steneck, a marine biology professor at the University. In collaboration with local South Bristol lobstermen, Steneck and Wahle began sampling for young-of-the-year lobsters (those that had just settled on the seafloor) in the Thread of Life by diving to the bottom and suctioning up everything within a half-meter-square area, then identifying the results on board.

Dr. Rick Wahle retired on August 31 after a long career as a lobster researcher. University of Maine photo.

“It was a really thrilling hands-on experience, seeing the lobster in their own environment and linking that with what the lobstermen working the grounds saw,” Wahle recalled. Wahle pursued his PhD from 1985 to 1990, interacting with lobstermen throughout the midcoast as the sampling program expanded. “It instilled a huge appreciation in me for this industry. It really gave me a great start here,” Wahle continued. During his time as a post-doc at Brown University, Wahle studied not lobsters but barnacles to gain a better understanding of larval dynamics. He enjoyed his research, yet lobsters kept calling. The fishery in Rhode Island was strong at that time and the sampling techniques perfected by Steneck and Wahle piqued the interest of local lobstermen. “I got some money and sampled in Narragansett Bay one summer. They set up sites there and then Massachusetts got interested and then the provinces got interested,” Wahle said.

Wahle landed a second post-doc position involving lobster sampling in Ireland and the United Kingdom and then faced a decision. He had applied for permanent research positions at the University of Alaska and the Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay. Both institutions offered him a job. Wahle chose to return to Maine, becoming senior research scientist at Bigelow in January 1995. He remained at the laboratory for fifteen years.

“All the while I was keeping the lobster settlement monitoring going. There were lots of spinoff questions from that. I received National Science Foundation funding to do additional lobster research,” Wahle said. He also had the opportunity to work on other population biology questions, such as the larval success of sea urchin populations in Maine. “That parlayed into questions concerning scallop larvae and population biology,” he said.

He continued to oversee the Lobster Settlement Index while diving regularly to conduct samples until 2005. By that time, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and state and provincial marine resource agencies had adopted the sampling program and expanded its scope. Today sampling sites are located across the Gulf of Maine, and in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

After years using divers in shallow areas to assess juvenile lobster populations, Wahle and Boothbay Harbor lobsterman Matt Parkhurst developed a new methodology for sampling deeper water, called a passive collector. The goal was to determine if young lobsters were using deeper waters as nursery areas as the Gulf of Maine warmed.

“Matt wanted to have something a lobsterman could haul,” Wahle recalled. “He fabricated the first prototype with the same coated wire as in traps, which we tested in 2005.” A passive collector is a shallow rectangular box filled with cobbles held horizontally by two bridles. It is lowered onto the sea floor in deep water in late spring or early summer, then retrieved in the fall, at the end of the settlement season. The technology was simple and it worked. “They rapidly adopted it in both the U.S. and Canada,” Wahle said.

Wahle joined the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences faculty in 2009. Then in 2018 he became head of The Lobster Institute, taking over from the Institute’s founder Bob Bayer. The Institute, begun in 1987, promotes and conducts research on the lobster fishery in the U.S. and Canada. It is well-known for the U.S.-Canada Lobster Town Meeting, held in alternate countries each year. Most recently, the Institute was part of successful application to the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic Program for 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.

Upon retirement, Wahle stepped down as a lead investigator but will remain involved in the study. “I plan to offer a collaborative course through the University of Maine and the University of New Brunswick on climate and fisheries,” he said. “We’re starting to arrange it now to be offered in September 2024.”

Retirement can be a jolt for some people. In Wahle’s case, he’s looking forward to it. “What I hope to be doing is continue to work in different areas that I think are important. Being retired gives me a chance to take in the big picture, to spend time with people and do things I haven’t had a chance to do,” he said.


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