Along the rocky bottom of the chilly Atlantic Ocean crawls one of the world’s favorite delicacies, the Maine lobster.
Lobster is Maine’s No. 1 export. There are more than 6,000 lobstermen along the state’s 228-mile coast. Maine has just over 2 million people and almost double that number in lobster traps.
Why is the crustacean off the coast of Maine thriving while populations elsewhere are declining? Are Maine’s coveted lobsters threatened?
We traveled to Bar Harbor looking for answers. Nearly 3 million visitors travel there each year just to get a taste of a Maine lobster.
Andy Xu is the executive chef at Atlantic Grill in New York City. He says that when it comes to the taste of the Maine lobster, "The meat is sweeter, there is less water in the body so you definitely get more bang for the buck."
We spoke to Bob Steneck, a marine biologist and oceanographer at the University of Maine. He knows these decapods front to back, having studied lobsters in Maine for more than 30 years.
“The environment in Maine, it’s a rocky shore, so it has that kind of nursery habitat that lobsters like,” he says. “But probably more importantly, there are temperatures that are too warm, and there are temperatures that are too cold. Maine happens to be sitting in the sweet spot of being in exactly the right temperature.”
As booming as Maine’s lobster business is, the past decade has seen a shocking decline in lobster numbers from Rhode Island to Long Island.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the number of lobsters in southern New England has fallen by more than 70 percent over the past 20 years.
In Rhode Island, we visited the boat of Mike Marchetti, who quit lobstering because of the population decline. He started out hauling in just a few rudimentary pods when he was in high school, selling trash cans full of lobster for extra cash. His business grew until the early 2000s, when things suddenly went sour.
“Damned if I can even remember what years now — it’s 2001 to 2006 — but it was the fishery started to really see some heavy declines. People were having a hard time making money. A lot of people left the business.”
Mike switched the rigging of his boat to harvest scallops instead of lobsters.
So why are lobsters thriving in Maine while men like Marchetti are leaving the business in nearby Rhode Island?
While we can’t point to a single cause for the slumping population of Rhode Island lobsters, Steneck is keeping a close eye on the climate.
“The thing that we’re watching is climate change,” he says. “We know that in areas to the south, for example, off of Rhode Island, 1998 was the warmest year on the planet. That year a shell disease broke out, and the lobster populations declined by 80 percent.”
Fortunately for Maine, Steneck doesn’t see anything similar happening there in the near future.
The unusually warm temperatures seen in Rhode Island in 1998 are not likely to be seen in Maine for some time, he says.
Even Marchetti believes lobsters will return off Rhode Island if we give them time. His boat can quickly be rerigged for lobsters, and he’ll be ready when the time comes.