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Maine Fishermen Prepare For Losses And Gains In A Climate-Changed Ocean

Fred Bever
Maine Public File
Jeff Putnam, a Chebeague Island lobsterman who has a side line in oysters, in 2018.

In 30 years, the Gulf of Maine will have been transformed by climate change. Its waters will inexorably grow warmer, and the species that flourish there will be those that can adapt. The same might be said for the Mainers who make their living from the sea. The future of the state's marine economy may well belong to those who can adapt.

A little over a year ago, reporter Fred Bever visited a small estuary on the far side of Chebeague Island, where lobsterman Jeff Putnam was working on a little side-business.

"These are oysters that I started just this year,” Putnam said at the time.

Putnam established the Sandy Point oyster farm to add a new revenue stream to his business, and, he says, provide future options for his children.

"Hopefully the lobster resource will still be strong when they grow up, and that will be there and that will be an option but there's certainly no guarantee that's the case,” he said. “So I wanted to show them there is another way to make a living."

With the state's lobster harvest now appearing to fall off from recent record levels, Bever called Jeff this week to see how the oysters are coming along.

"It's going well. I've sold some to a local fish market here in Yarmouth, Dave's Seafood,” Putnam says. “I love it, I really do. It's awesome."

That puts him in a small but growing phalanx of lobstermen trying out new ways to preserve a career and culture amid change that scientists say is well under way in the Gulf of Maine.

With the state's lobster harvest now appearing to fall off from recent record levels, Bever called Jeff this week to see how the oysters are coming along.

Researchers say warming water temperatures projected over the next 30 years could reduce the Gulf's lobster population by as much as 62 percent as it shifts northward to cooler waters.

That worst-case scenario would knock the Maine harvest down to levels seen back in the late 1990s or early 2000s — still better than in earlier decades, but nowhere near the monster hauls of the past ten years.

And it's not just lobster that will be edging out of the picture.

"We expect to see quite substantial declines in a number of groundfish species like cod, haddock, pollock. So the species that have typically formed the base of many of our fisheries in this region," says Kathy Mills, a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Mills is modeling what will happen to more than 50 Atlantic marine species in the Gulf by 2055 — and what that could mean for ports up and down the coast — from Point Judith, Rhode Island, to Stonington, Maine.

"And how that relates to their current dependence on fisheries,” she says. “What are they currently harvesting? How will they be affected by these changes? And, also, what new species might be moving in that provide new opportunities in the future?"

Take Stonington, the unrivaled king of the lobster boom. The port's 250-plus fishermen this decade routinely brought in more than $40 million worth per year. Mills says early runs of her models predict that the lobster population near Stonington could drop off by some 20 percent. Other fisheries, such as herring and halibut, will also decline. And, assuming the lobstermen stick to their habitual ways of fishing, profits could fall by more than half.

That could lead to exits from the fishing business, consolidation, and financial disaster for fishermen with big loans on their boats. But, there will be other opportunities, as more southerly species follow the warming temperatures up the coast.

"Black sea bass and squid, those are consistently increasing,” says Mills. “Scup, butterfish and potentially some of the crab species, so like rock crabs for example."

Warming waters are also expected to expand the range of some aquaculture crops, including oysters and quahogs — although problematic predators such as the invasive green crab are benefited as well.

Mills says that if fishing communities like Stonington play it right and aggressively adapt to the ecosystem shifts, profits, in many cases, can stay near the levels seen through the boom years this decade. And some lobstermen in Stonington are already on board.

"So one of the things that I've been thinking about for quite a few years is squid,” says Stonington lobsterman Genevieve McDonald.

McDonald says that back in 2012, when the Gulf hit new records for warm temperatures, longfin squid suddenly turned up in abundance. So now she's thinking about how to take advantage of that — and about what type of gear and infrastructure she would need to catch squid and get them to market.

McDonald says her husband's family still has an ice-house they once used for preserving groundfish, such as cod, back before those fisheries crashed.

"You actually might be going back to what will, at that point, be historical knowledge,” she says. “And so when your talking about black sea bass or squid, you're no longer dealing with a live product, so you go back to icing fish and shipping them to New York or Boston."

McDonald says that back in 2012, when the Gulf hit new records for warm temperatures, longfin squid suddenly turned up in abundance.

Another key issue is getting permission to fish for squid, sea bass and other emerging species. In federal waters, three miles and more for offshore fisheries are ruled by federal quotas, and it may be difficult to get Rhode Island, for instance, to give up quota so that Mainers can capture a new share of squid. McDonald, who is also a state representative on the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, says Maine fishermen should first focus on inshore waters and encourage state regulators to start designing regulations for emerging fisheries.

"Because it's not your grandfather's fishery anymore. We're really hitting a point where if you want to succeed, you're going to have to be involved in management and you're going to have to know what's coming."

But while lobster harvesters are thinking ahead, many remain focused on the fishery they know. And Carla Guenther, chief scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, cautions that all the hype about long-term lobster decline is leaving some fishermen feeling helpless.

"Just pounding in the press about how climate change is going to threaten the lobster fishery, it's paralyzing,” Guenther says. “For these guys it's like getting a diagnosis that your kid has cancer."

Still, she notes that fishermen in general are natural entrepreneurs, and adept at going after different species when necessary. Right out her dockside window she says that lobstermen re-rig their boats to take advantage of the area's growing scallop fishery.

"There are successes, there are diversification options,” she says. “Is it going to be for all 4500 lobster license holders? No. But we've got to start thinking something. And as long as we're thinking creatively about how we can achieve diversification that's going to be what we survive on.”

Jeff Putnam, the Chebeague lobsterman experimenting with oysters, is firmly, if cautiously, on that path.

"I don't plan to expand too much with just oysters. I plan to look into the kelp business a little bit."

And, Putnam says, he'll keep on lobstering full-time, year round.

This story is part of a week-long reporting project Covering Climate Now by Maine Public and more than 300 other news outlets around the world. The series comes in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday Sept. 23 in New York. More information here.

Ed: an earlier version of this post misidentified Sandy Point as Spring Point.

Originally published Sept. 20, 2019 at 5:09 p.m. ET

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.