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UMaine scientists: Future of 'brave new ocean' unpredictable

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Journal highlights U.S.-Canada Symposium presentations, research priorities

ORONO - Expect the unexpected when it comes to the future of the American lobster in the North Atlantic, say two University of Maine marine scientists.

Due to fewer predators, warming water, an influx of warm-water species and risks of disease, traditional conditions no longer exist on which fisheries management can rely, say Robert Steneck and Richard Wahle of UMaine's School of Marine Sciences and Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine.

“American lobster dynamics in a brave new ocean," penned by Steneck and Wahle, is in a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science titled “American Lobster in a Changing Ecosystem: U.S.-Canada Science Symposium” published online in October 2013. The journal includes a number of scientific presentations made at the symposium in November 2012.

“The symposium is timely,” says Wahle, “because the lobster is of such critical importance to coastal economies of New England and Atlantic Canada, but with such profound ecological change, we don't know what the future will bring.”

Scientists agree it's best to examine lobsters' responses to the changing environment in an ecosystem context. Thus, the forum - attended by approximately 150 scientists and students and fisheries managers from the United States and Canada - was designed to share findings, identify common research gaps and priorities and accelerate collaborations between scientists in the bordering countries.

Wahle and Steneck shared that since 1980, lobster landings have increased three- to five-fold in Canada and the U.S. Reproductive success of lobsters, coupled with the elimination of large predators, including Atlantic cod, are reasons for the increase, they say.

But, due to the vast reduction in the number of cod and other groundfish, Steneck and Wahle say coastal communities in Maine and Atlantic Canada are economically perilously dependent on the lobster fishery.

And, as lobster population densities and water temperature increase, so too do risks and consequences of disease, say the researchers who were featured in Trevor Corson's 2004 book, “The Secret Life of Lobsters." In southern New England, for instance, where ocean water reaches 22 to 24° C (72 to 75° F) in the summer, the lobster fishery has collapsed in the wake of disease and episodes of mass mortality brought on by more frequent ocean heat waves.

The symposium also highlighted recent promising initiatives in the two countries, including the examination of lobster shell disease in southern New England and industry-backed fishery improvement efforts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Wahle, Paul Anderson of the Maine Sea Grant College Program at UMaine and Andrea Battison of CrustiPath in Prince Edward Island co-chaired the symposium, which was hosted by Maine Sea Grant College Program and held in Portland, Maine.

In addition to the special journal issue, the symposium received extensive media attention in both countries. “When climate change affects things people care about, they sit up and pay attention,” Wahle says.

Wahle and Steneck's article may be found at http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/cjfas-2013-0465#.Upyk92USTd8. A program of the abstracts and agendas may be found at seagrant.umaine.edu/lobster-symposium.

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