Labaree discusses fishery crisis

Labaree discussed how climate change affects different species. Jeffrey Rubel/Contributing Photographer
Jonathan Labaree ’85 discussed his research at the GMRI.
Jeffrey Rubel/Contributing Photographer

Jonathan Labaree ’85 came to campus on Nov. 6 as part of the Class of 1960 Lecture program to discuss his research at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) on how climate change is affecting lobster and cod fisheries.

After graduating, Labaree studied environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry and currently serves as the Director of Community Initiates at GMRI. GMRI promotes the preservation of the Gulf of Maine through research, educating students and informing the surrounding community.

Labaree focused his talk on how the summer of 2012 affected fisheries, which he described as a “climate change wake-up call.”

The 2012 ocean heat wave caused an increase in temperature above the 30-year mean. The temperature was “off the charts,” Labaree said; it was five degrees warmer on average than previous years. Even more alarmingly, trends indicate that 2012 temperatures may one day become the norm. “Oceanic climate change is not just about sea-level rise,” Labaree said. Labaree’s research at GMRI focused on how this “anomalous” year affected the lobster and cod fisheries in the Gulf of Maine.

The lobster fishing industry is the second most valuable fishery in the U.S. During the winter, lobsters go off shore to warmer waters at lower depths; then, during the summer, the lobsters move inshore where they shed their shells and are caught by lobstermen. These molting lobsters are fragile “soft-shell lobsters.”

Molting typically happens gradually, as a “methodical procession of molting along the coast,” Labaree said. But in 2012, all molting along the entire coast of Maine, happened simultaneously, flooding the market with soft-shell lobsters. In June and July of 2012, 16 million pounds of lobster entered the marketplace.

Because of the excess supply, lobster prices dropped dramatically, making fishing unprofitable. Many Maine lobstermen in 2012 “took a few days off to enjoy the nice weather,” according to Labaree and stopped fishing. But this “strike” did not work because, once they resumed fishing, they caught all of the lobsters they did not catch earlier.

Many of the lobsters caught in Maine are sent to Canada for processing. This system works because Canada concentrates on lobster fishing in the winter while Maine focuses on lobster fishing in the summer. However, because of the rapid movement of lobsters inshore, both the U.S. and Canada begin fishing at the same time, flooding the Canadian processing facilities.

According to Labaree, there was excess product in both Canada and Maine, flooding the market. Consequently, Canadian processors began to blockade U.S. lobster shipments. Tons of lobster rotted away on trucks attempting to enter Canada. After 2012, two companies started construction on lobster processing facilities within Portland, Maine, in order to stop future blockade issues with processing in Canada.

The cod industry also encountered a similar problem in 2012. Cod are moving north, and “one of the big reasons why is [overfishing],” Labaree said. While cod used to be found off the coast of Georgia, they are no longer found south of Massachusetts.

GMRI is working to keep up-to-date data on cod movement. According to Labaree, our current laws are based on data from four years ago. Because cod populations are changing faster than legislation can keep track, overfishing is still likely to occur. The solution is to “use the fleet,” Labaree said. Relying on fishermen for data about the location of cod populations will allow for more up-to-date information for use in legislation.