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Scientists and fishermen wrangle with uncertain future of Maine’s lobster fishing industry

As tourists in Bar Harbor, Maine, recover from a summer of whale watching, blueberry soda and seafood buffets, the town's lobstermen get to work. Steve Burns steers his lobster boat, the Julie B, named after his daughter, across the waters of Maine's rugged coast as the sunrise reflects across the waves. Headed toward a cluster of red-orange buoys bobbing beyond the harbor, Burns pursues his elusive prey: lobster.

Lobster fishing is a longtime staple of Maine's culture and economy, but it now faces uncertain consequences of a changing climate. The temperature of the Gulf of Maine has risen at a rate faster than 99% of the world's oceans, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Yet, as scientists warn that Maine's waters will eventually warm too much for lobsters, local fishermen remain skeptical. As the future of Maine's fishery hangs in the balance, lobstermen's collaboration in research and policy could provide an unexpected solution.

Burns' boat displays the collaboration between fishermen and scientists. He is accompanied by Giulia Cardoso, whom he endearingly calls his "little Italian spitfire." Cardoso works on the Julie B as both a sternman and a researcher studying lobster populations.

Cardoso worries for the environmental and cultural impacts of climate change on lobster fishing. "Lobster fishing embodies the sense of nature and community and tradition of Maine," she said. "The fisheries in Southern New England have collapsed. My concern is that that will happen here too."

This warming has caused a boom in Maine's lobster catch over recent years as populations push northwards, but it is not expected to last. By 2050, warming could cut lobster populations in the gulf by up to 62 percent, the institute said. This would have a devastating effect on Maine's lobster industry.

Burns is less convinced. "I've seen some changes, but everything I've seen has benefitted the fishery," he said.

Burns is not wrong. However, the population increase he has witnessed is a short-term benefit of the long-term issue of climate change, according to the research institute. Scientists may have a clearer picture, but Burns's observations still have value.

Maine's lobstermen have worked to conserve lobster populations for decades. As Burns and Cardoso pull up their barnacle-encrusted traps, they meticulously examine each lobster. Any deemed fertile or undersized are tossed back into the water. Fishermen's intimate knowledge of lobster populations is different than what Cardoso calls "scientific data," but can provide a localized lens for research. Fishery-dependent data – data collected by commercial and recreational fishing sources – provides critical information that can be used in fisheries management.

Burns believes researchers and policymakers discount the experiences of lobstermen. "These guys sit in D.C. and they come up with these laws, and they have no idea what it's like to be out here," he said.

Recent controversy over increased federal regulation has heightened distrust among lobster fisherman. Lobstermen will soon have to change their trapping practices to lessen the risk of entanglement for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. In addition, local herring quotas, which determine lobstermen's access to bait, have been slashed. These issues have increased Burns' distrust towards outside interference in the lobster industry, including claims of climate change.

The problem lies not with the science itself, Cardoso said, but in that it does not always include perspectives of the fishermen.

"I personally believe there should be a better integration of the two. There's so much to be gained there, for the fisherman, researchers, policy makers, and the environment itself," Cardoso said. "The biggest stereotype of fishermen is that they don't trust science and that they aren't observant."

Lobstermen have been enforcing their own sustainable practices for decades, and they are not oblivious to the state of the warming world beneath their boats.

"I would like to think that we do care about the environment because it's our livelihood. Look at this," Burns said. His eyes gleam as he takes in the endless blue ocean on the horizon and the pine tree-dotted shore. "How could you ask for anything better?"

(Note: This article was produced at the Institute for Environmental Journalism, a two-week summer program for teens run by the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News. For more information, visit https://insideclimatenews.org/iej-2019.)

ABOUT THE WRITER

Lauren Ulrich, 17, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Rolla, Missouri

Follow iGeneration Youth @igyglobal on Twitter.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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