In “The lobster trap,” The Boston Globe and the Portland Press Herald zoomed in on a small island central to Maine’s signature industry, smack dab in the crosshairs of global climate change. Reporters immersed themselves in the lives of local lobstermen reckoning with change and struggling to plot a path into the future.
Below are seven key takeaways from the series:
1. The forces that sparked a lobster boom, and brought unprecedented prosperity to Maine lobstermen, can also take it all away.
The American lobster thrives in chilly waters between 54 and 64 degrees, but can stay healthy up to 68 degrees. Long-term exposure to anything hotter spells serious trouble, like respiratory and immune system failure.
As ocean temperatures rise, the epicenter of the lobster population is shifting north to cooler waters. Right now, the thermal sweet spot is off midcoast Maine, where Vinalhaven and Stonington lobstermen fish.
But scientists warn the good times won’t last: As warming continues, they predict the catch will decline by half within 30 years.
2. The Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, is one of the fastest-warming bodies of ocean water on the planet. And the pace is picking up: For the last 15 years, the gulf has warmed at seven times the global average.
Scientists say the shape and depth of the gulf are two factors. And the powerful currents that feed it, which influence its temperatures, are also changing, due to melting Arctic ice.
3. The potential loss of lobster in Maine is almost too big to comprehend. Lobster is a $1.4 billion industry in Maine, a critical economic foundation for its 3,400 miles of remote coastline. Lobster fishing employs 4,100 people directly and generates another 35,000 jobs for dock workers, dealers, truckers, and processors, plus others in lobster-related businesses like trap making and boat building.
“When the fishermen do good, everybody does good,” said Vinalhaven captain Walt Day. “And if it’s a lean year, everybody has a lean year.”
Maine lobster accounts for 81 percent of all lobster caught in the United States.
4. Vinalhaven and its island fishing culture is unique — but the threat it faces is the same one bearing down on all of us around the world.
Maine’s second-busiest port is a working island of 1,200 people, 15 miles at sea, but its challenges aren’t dissimilar to those of countless cities and industries ― mining, logging, and farming among them ― that are being forced to adapt to a warming climate.
5. Ocean warming is thrusting marine life into turmoil, and disruption is cascading up the coast.
The plankton that the North Atlantic right whale feeds on is averse to warming water and, like lobster, has shifted to cooler zones. The endangered whales have followed, putting them at greater risk of ship strikes and gear entanglements. As whale deaths multiply and extinction looms, the government is imposing stricter restrictions on fishermen to try and save the species.
6. In its quest to save the right whale, the US government is considering steps that could transform the lobster industry within 10 years.
Regulators are closing off swaths of the ocean to traditional lobstering, telling captains who want to fish there that they must apply for permits and convert to so-called “ropeless” technology.
The goal is to protect whales from undersea entanglements by eliminating the vertical ropes that connect lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys on the surface. But the new high-tech gear is still being tested, and fishermen fear it won’t work as promised, and that its cost will force them out of business. Environmental advocates have urged the federal government to help subsidize the transition of the fishery to ropeless gear.
7. While Vinalhaven’s industry weathers immense change, other forces are silently shaping the island’s future.
By even the government’s most conservative projections, the Gulf of Maine will rise by at least 19 inches by 2050, breaching 30 homes and 20 businesses on the island’s Main Street.
As islanders plan and prepare for that threat, some are also trying to envision a future economy that depends less on fishing. They are experimenting with salt-water crops like kelp, and contemplating the unsettling prospect of a more robust tourist industry. “Do we want to become Camden, or Nantucket?” they ask.
This island has embraced adaption before. When its thriving granite trade cratered in the 1900s, islanders turned to cod and haddock fishing. When those fisheries collapsed and poverty set in, they pivoted again, to lobstering.
Their track record suggests a deep resilience. “They can use their ingenuity,” said Sam Belknap, a community development officer with the Rockland-based Island Institute. “That’s what fishermen do.”