(Photo by Jonathan Lavan)
Essay | Cold water crisis: the Gulf of Maine heatwave
Growing up on the coast of Maine, I can attest that the state’s motto, ‘the way life should be’ is true. Pictures do not fully convey the tranquil and refreshing beauty of its coastline. In stark contrast, rows of tall, dark evergreens tower over the cool granite-colored rocks. While seasonal air temperatures may get quite warm, nothing truly prepares one for the water’s penetrating coldness when it touches the skin. Cold is a required temperature in the Gulf of Maine, at least a necessary one for the region’s famous residents – its lobsters.
Lobstering and living on the coast are part of my family and the area’s culture. As a teen, my father would take his skiff out every summer morning to check his traps, bringing his bounty to a nearby cove for sale. The money he made from selling his captured crustaceans funded his first car. When I was little, my father, brother, and I would take our boat out fishing and check the few lobster pots we kept in and around the cove.
Family friends continue to lobster today, utilizing the state’s miles of shoreline as their outdoor office and primary source of income. The quintessential Maine fisherman, the ubiquitous term used for both fish and lobster harvesters, respects the water and understands the gulf’s deep-rooted value to the region. However, the ever-increasing impacts of climate change are stressing the Gulf of Maine’s ecosystem, creating life-altering ramifications for sea and land inhabitants alike.
Reaching the boiling point
Today, the Gulf of Maine is undergoing what oceanographers term a marine heatwave. Caused by warm water currents confined by cold water ice cap melt, marine heatwaves are calculated when the water temperature rises above the 90th percentile (of average temperatures) for more than five days. In 2018, during the height of the lobster season, the Gulf of Maine spent over 180 days in a marine heatwave. The Gulf of Maine Institute published evidence that “sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are warming 99% faster than any other global water on the planet” and surging up to 4°C warmer annually.
To avoid these heat waves, lobsters are slowly migrating north in the Gulf of Maine in search of colder habitable water. Because of this, Maine is currently experiencing a lobster boom. Last year, the state of Maine recorded an all-time high of 100 million pounds harvested, creating a street value of over $725 million, according to a February 2022 State of Maine Fisheries press release.
The Maine lobster’s uncertain future
While record harvests are great news for the fishermen and the local economy, two concerns can’t be ignored. As the catch numbers increase, more consumers are exposed to the toxins the lobsters’ filter and carry in their bodies. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Harmful algal blooms, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, have become more frequent and longer lasting in the Gulf of Maine.” Fishermen face potential harvesting restrictions because of the toxins, which will lead to reduced sales and reduced incomes. A harbinger of what is to come may be just a few years away. In the 2019-2020 lobster season, a common algae drastically increased its population during a marine heatwave in the southern section of the Gulf of Maine. When the algae bloom died, it fell to the ocean floor, drastically reducing the water’s oxygen levels. The local lobster population was decimated.
I fear for my Maine coastal community and what the future holds as marine heat waves increase in frequency and alter the viability of local lobster populations. While harvests may be plentiful now, the northern migration of lobsters to find colder temperatures means the fishermen either move with them or risk losing out. After investing in a boat, traps, buoys, and fuel, they may run the risk of no lobsters or harvesting ones exposed to toxins. Maine may be at the beginning of the end of its deepest tradition. There is only so much this beautiful yet fragile ecosystem can take and only so much a local economy and its people can endure.
This story was featured in our series, Slipping through our fingers: The future of water.