Are Lobsters Tougher Than We Thought?

As everyone is well aware, the lobster industry, both here and south of the border, is a business worth in the billions of dollars each year.

And once an industry attains such a lofty value, its stakeholders are always on the lookout for not only other possible positive opportunities, but factors that could lead to the detriment of such an important economic driver and resource.

One such factor for the lobster industry that seems to hold the duality of causing both excitement and anxiety is warming ocean temperatures.

One of the common and most documented theories as to why the lobster fishery has exploded in this region of the North Atlantic has to do with warming ocean temperatures. Lobster populations both here and south in the Gulf of Maine have increased exponentially — related, in part, to an increase in water temperature.

But what does the future hold if these waters continue to warm? This is obviously a concern for all involved and scientists on both sides of the border are working to try and predict what might happen to this booming industry.

A team of researchers from the University of Maine and Maine Department of Marine Resources recently published its research on the effects of ocean warming and acidification on gene expression in the earliest life stages of the American lobster.

The work was published in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution, with collaborators from the University of Prince Edward Island and Dalhousie University.

This important research found that baby lobsters may be more resilient and adaptable to rapidly changing ocean conditions than previously thought. Young lobsters seem to be tougher than any of us thought they were.

The team’s experiments examined the gene regulatory response of post-larval lobsters to the separate and combined effects of warming and acidification anticipated off the east coast of North America by the end of the 21st century.

The results from the study indicated that young lobsters might have the ability to change the genes that regulate a range of physiological functions, from those controlling shell formation to the immune response, as a mechanism to accommodate rapid changes in the ocean environment.

University of Maine graduate student Maura Niemisto, who led the study, noted that “there is still need for further study to determine how rapidly populations of the species may be able to adapt to changing conditions. To better understand how gene regulation in response to environmental changes functions within the species, we should look at subpopulations and multigenerational studies to determine the extent of species’ capacity to respond to altered environmental conditions.”

The scientists concluded that their study reveals some of the hidden mechanisms some species employ minute to minute and hour to hour at the cellular level to function normally in a variable environment. But now, more study is needed as they take on the larger challenge of understanding how species adapt on the much larger time scale of decades.

It is no coincidence that this study is being driven by a group in Maine. The Gulf of Maine is witnessing sea surface temperatures increasing at a rate faster than most of the world’s oceans and its lobsters are thus more susceptible to higher rates of acidification.

As a result, both scientists and fishermen in Maine are reporting that the core epicentre of the state’s lobster range has been shifting northward over the last decade in response to warming ocean temperatures.

Lobster moving north, following the cooler water. Sound familiar?

However, right now, little is known about how the species will respond to the combined effects of increasing ocean temperatures and acidification.

This is why it is more important than ever that all lobster industry stakeholders on both sides of the border, whether competitors in the marketplace or not, join forces in supporting such crucial and important research.

Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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