One of the more puzzling recent trends in ocean management has been the record hauls of lobsters that have come in over the past few years. Could the reason be that lobstermen are actually more like farmers than fishermen? That’s the provocative suggestion of a new article in Modern Farmer, which cites research by Northeastern ecologist Jonathan Grabowski showing that lobstermen might be inadvertently cultivating the bottom-dwelling crustaceans.
Lobster harvests have been way up in the Gulf of Maine, and many have speculated about why. One theory is that warming ocean temperatures lead lobsters to come inshore earlier in the year to molt, bringing more of them onto the market at the same time; another factor may be the collapsing population of Atlantic cod, which eat young lobsters.
Grabowski’s study, which was published in 2010 when he was at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, finds another cause: Lobsters eat the herring used to bait traps, and then escape. (Other research has shown that 94 percent of the time lobsters enter traps, they exit before getting pulled up.) The bait acts as feed, fattening up lobsters so that they reach minimum-size requirements faster and leading to larger overall catches, at least in the short term. (Long-term, this wouldn’t change the overall number of lobsters available to be caught.)
Andrew Pershing, Chief Scientific Officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, observes that between reductions in predators and bait acting as feed, the Gulf of Maine has been transformed into a de facto lobster paradise — at least up until the point the lobsters are hauled up. “I think it’s just sort of amazing how you take this really complicated system of fisherman over a couple hundred years,” he says, “and you end up with a system that’s really good at producing lobsters.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.