During my annual vacation in Maine, I read Christopher White’s new book, “The Last Lobster,” which describes the phenomenal boom in the lobster catch since the early 1990s — more than six times greater production over a 20-year period.
Caught in roughly three million traps are 125 million pounds of lobster versus only about 20 million pounds not that long ago. Generating around $500 million of annual revenue, of which $80 million came from China before the tariffs, it is Maine’s largest industry. But like the stock market, it is an economic engine that hangs by a thin thread. And, like the market, it relies on the wisdom of crowds — crowds of lobsters, if you will.
Until about 20 years ago, lobster behavior was a mystery that didn’t explain why good and bad seasons came and went. Everyone had theories of what was happening under water, but until researchers started searching with waterproof video cameras, two-person submarines and tracking devices stuck to the lobsters’ backs with super glue, they had little empirical evidence of what was really happening. Now they know, because the results of that research were outlined in an earlier book, “The Secret Life of Lobsters,” by Trevor Corson.
In short, the current boom results in part because the cod fish industry was decimated by over-fishing and cod had been, in part, responsible for eating baby lobsters.
But more importantly, the lobstermen took steps to conserve their valuable resource by electing to limit the number of traps they could set and the size of the lobsters they could keep. They threw back any that were less than, or longer than, specified lengths — protecting both small and large “bugs” as they are called. Meanwhile, all egg-bearing females, whose eggs are stored outside the shell, were thrown back regardless of size. The tails of females were notched to identify them and prevent them from going to market, so they could sit around and hatch more eggs.
All the lobsters thrown back just go back into the traps, eat more bait, and wait to be caught again and thrown back — a giant underwater fish factory.
Thanks to this invasion of their privacy, with 24/7 videos of their activity, we know that lobsters have mating rituals. Females tend to all line up to flirt with, and then mate with, just the biggest alpha males. Ignoring the other males creates a level of frustration on the ocean floor. That, of course, leads to fighting and other troubles which remain a part of that secret life.
The looming problem for Maine is climate change. All this activity happens at precise levels of sea temperature, and the epicenter of the lobster population is currently where I spend my vacation. However, that center is moving north at a rate of about 4 miles per year as the sea temperature keeps rising. Long Island Sound once had lobsters, most of which are now long gone. In another 20 years, a major portion of Maine’s current population will be in Canadian waters, and eventually those Canadians could enjoy the roughly $500 million of revenue.
But warmer water doesn’t just drive lobsters north. It leads to shell disease that destroys all crustaceans.
Climate change, to the extent caused by humans, is really the result of owners of a common resource locked in short-term selfish behavior that eventually causes harm to everyone. In his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin makes the point that a common pasture, like the “Boston Commons” — now a park in the middle of that city — only serves everyone when the citizens agree not to overgraze. Today, it’s our air and its temperature that suffer from the politics of selfishness. And the evidence is everywhere.
The lobstermen of Maine have taken steps to preserve their resource. Nobody could be more deserving than this group of men and women out in the elements doing physically demanding, dangerous work. They are reaping the rewards of having acted in responsible, intelligent ways. They don’t deserve the adverse impact that may result from forces of neglect that go uncorrected far beyond the waters of Maine. We voters will ultimately come to their rescue, and let’s hope we’re not too late.