HomeIndustryCommentary: Lobster stocks: boom or bubble?

Commentary: Lobster stocks: boom or bubble?

Is Canada doing enough to ensure the East Coast lobster industry’s sustainability? Or maybe the question should be whether sustainability is possible at all? Catches are reportedly down this year in the major western Nova Scotia lobster fishery, albeit coming off a bumper harvest in 2016.

Canada exported a record $6.6 billion in fish and seafood products in 2016, up from $6.1 billion in 2015. Lobster remains the top species exported, accounting for more than $2 billion in export value.

Huge new markets for Atlantic lobster are also opening in East Asia, especially in China. For example, China imported more than 14 million pounds of lobster from the U.S. in 2016, representing about US$108 million in sales.

The U.S. itself remains Canada’s top export market for seafoods, including lobster. According to the Canadian Lobster Council, 63 per cent of that 6.1 billion worth of fish and seafood products Canada exported in 2015 went to our southern neighbour and sometime competitor in international seafoods markets.

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) reports Atlantic Canadian companies exported $930 million in fish and seafood products to Asia in 2015. Nearly half of the region’s seafood exports to Asian countries were purchased by China, for a value of more than $432 million. Of that amount, nearly $116 million was shipped directly to Hong Kong.

While just 10 per cent of Atlantic Canada’s seafood exports went to China in 2015, that proportion is expected to grow over the longer term. It’s projected that 85 per cent of retail growth in high-value foods will be in Asia, according to Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada metrics cited by the Lobster Council.

The U.S. sold more than US$150,000 worth of lobster in the European Union in 2016. Reportedly, American fishing interests are concerned about more robust competition from Canadian lobster in the EU once the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is in place. CETA was approved by parliament in May and the removal EU tariffs (as high as 19 per cent on some categories of Canadian lobster imports) are expected before year-end.

The problem with booms is they tend to be followed by busts. With demand for Atlantic lobster expected to continue growing in both East Asia and Europe, the real issue of concern for both Canadian and U.S. lobster fishers, and other industry stakeholders, isn’t so much who competes in these lucrative markets most effectively, but whether the resource can sustainably withstand increased pressure to produce. Market demand is growing, but the ocean isn’t getting any bigger.

One major limitation of resource based industries is that when demand begins outstripping supply, you can’t just build another production facility. Another is that producers have no control over factors such as weather and climate, which can impact production positively or negatively.

Fishers in both Atlantic Canada and New England have been enjoying a relative boom in lobster catches over the past two decades. This is widely attributed to factors such as warming of the region’s waters due to climate change and to radically lower numbers and size of cod, formerly a major lobster larvae predator. In a 2015 analysis of the lobster stock boom phenomenon, Quartz reporter Gwynn Guilford noted that in 2014 Maine fishers harvested 124 million pounds of lobsters, six times the amount caught in the state in 1984.

A recent report by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Office of Science and Technology, a branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service, observes the lobster fishery, New England’s largest, continued its strong performance in 2015. Landings are attributed to unprecedented abundance levels of Gulf of Maine lobsters, which account for 79 per cent of New England’s lobster landings revenue since 2006. Average annual landings over the past five years have amounted to three times the average annual landings for the previous 60 years. Total annual U.S. lobster harvests grew from 71.7 million pounds in 2003 to about 148 million pounds in 2014. Most of that, 80 per cent, was caught by Maine fishers, with that state’s catch topping 120 million pounds for the fourth year in a row in 2015.

It seems highly improbable that such phenomenal growth can be sustained. Guilford cites a scholarly 2015 study published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that notes climate change is now threatening the more southern lobster nurseries (deep sea regions where baby lobsters live). This, along with other factors such as hypoxia, ocean acidification and shifting ranges of lobster predators and competitors, is changing the geography of lobster distribution. Guilford concludes that “fishery managers will need to anticipate and adapt to the impacts of a warming climate.”

One unproven hypothesis explaining the lobster stock boom in Maine and Atlantic Canada, and the collapse farther south, is that lobsters like it warm, but not too warm. Ideally, they like it within a range of 5° to 18°C, with 20° C. being the maximum they can tolerate. For the past few decades the temperature sweet spot for lobster has been shifting northward to Maine and Atlantic Canadian latitudes, partially explaining the record annual harvests. However, with climate change warming expected to continue, it’s logical to deduce that warmer water and lobsters will both continue their northward migration, ultimately disrupting the lobster economies of both Maine and Atlantic Canada.

In 2015, NOAA Fisheries implemented new American lobster conservation measures to conserve severely depleted Southern New England lobster stocks. The new measures include increasing the minimum carapace size to 3.0531 inches, introducing seasonal closures and a fishing trap reduction schedule.

On this side of the border, the Lobster Council maintains that Canada is a world leader in sustainable fisheries management. Canada’s lobster fishery has one of the longest histories of regulation with many of the management measures in place today dating back more than a century. The first conservation measure (protection of egg-bearing females, which must be released back into the environment alive to ensure the reproductive cycle continues) was put in place in the early 1870s. Harvesters may also voluntarily opt cut a small v-shaped notch in the female’s tail prior to release to ensure its release in the future, even when not bearing eggs.

The council also cites:

  • minimum lobster size limits, which increase the likelihood of a lobster reaching full adult reproductive maturity
  • maximum lobster size limits to protect large lobsters that proportionally produce more eggs
  • trap designs that allow undersized lobsters to escape
  • biodegradable trap escape panels that ensure traps lost at sea won’t continue catching lobsters and other species

The U.S. area 41 offshore lobster fishery also is assigned an annual total allowable catch limit.

However, the operative question is will conservation rules on either side of the border be enough to sustain current levels of exploitation, let alone significant market expansion in Asia and Europe, given the forces of climate change?