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Center for Environmental Studies

Class of 1960s Lecture: Jonathan M. Labaree ’85 on “Stampeding Lobster and Vanishing Cod: Climate Change and Fisheries in the Gulf of Maine”

Jonathan Labaree ’85 is the Director of Community Initiatives at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI). GMRI works from Rhode Island to Northern New Brunswick in Canada with a focus on Maine and Massachusetts. Their work incorporates four major ideas: healthy ecosystems, sustainable industries, vibrant communities and inspired children. GMRI works with scientists who focus on improving fisheries by studying the entire ecosystem. They also have a program that brings almost all the fifth and sixth graders in Maine to learn what it is like to be a scientist. On November 6, 2013 Labaree came to Williams and gave a lecture on the extreme heat of 2012 and how it affected the lobster and cod industries.

The lobster industry is the second most valuable fishery in the United States and most of that industry is located in Maine. 90% of the soft shell lobsters are caught in the summertime when the lobsters move inshore and molt. Most of those lobsters are then sent north to Canada to be processed and sent back to the U.S. for consumption. This usually routine seasonal industry was went through some changes in 2012 when there was a sea surface temperature anomaly. The Northern Atlantic was five degrees warmer than the thirty-year average and every single day was above the same temperature as the highest recorded temperature of Maine in the last 14 years.

The 2012 heat wave made the lobsters molt all at once, which immediately flooded the market. In early July, the lobstermen decided to stop fishing because the prices were dropping too low. At the same time, in New Brunswick, there were blockades preventing Maine lobster deliveries from entering the country. This led to the approval of two piers in Portland that will process lobster and the government has chosen to invest an additional $2 million for marketing efforts to promote lobster.

While the lobster catch and industry is flourishing, the cod industry is struggling to keep up with the changing population of cod. Over the last forty years, the distribution of cod has decreased tremendously to just the northern and western parts of the Gulf of Maine. The cod are disappearing, the distribution is changing, spawning is changing, and the traditional system of closure is not going to keep up. It takes about three to four years for the data to be implemented into regulation and science is still playing catch-up. The disappearance of cod could be attributed to the heavy years of fishing pressure and the rising ocean temperatures that have put the system under increased stress.

Although the cod are disappearing, Labaree talked about other species from the mid-Atlantic that are now moving towards the Gulf such as butterfish, longfin squid, summer flounder, and black sea bass. However, these fish are not covered under groundfish licenses, therefore, the cod fishermen would not be able to catch them. It may very well be that the current two separate fisheries management systems—the one that oversees New England species and the one that oversees Mid-Atlantic species—will both be applicable to the Gulf of Maine in the near future. Climate change in the ocean is more than just about sea level rise and people should invest in science. Labaree suggested that people should try out less familiar species that would put less pressure on the Gulf of Maine and to also support the fishing industry as it works its way through the scientific and political hoops.

By Helen Song ’14

Molly McEntee '14 (left), Kiah Walker '15 (middle), and Jon Labaree '85 (right)

Molly McEntee ’14 (left), Kiah Walker ’15 (middle), and Jon Labaree ’85 (right)