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Author Topic: IMEP #134 - Part 1 Climate Patterns for Lobsters  (Read 1543 times)
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« on: March 22, 2024, 04:19:31 PM »

IMEP #134 – Part 1
Catch Statistics Support Climate Patterns for Lobsters
Climate Change May Be Buried Under Dead Fish and Lobsters
“Understanding Science Through History”
Historic Small Boat Fisheries Provide Details of Previous Seafood Cycles 
Catch Statistics Support Climate Patterns for Lobsters
Viewpoint of Tim Visel, no other agency or organization
December 2019 – This is a delayed report
Updated June, 2020
Tim Visel retired from The Sound School June 30, 2022
Thank you, The Blue Crab ForumTM, for supporting these Habitat History reports

Update June 2022 – Tim Visel

The Great Heat

By 1898 after a decade of unrelenting hot summers, Connecticut’s lobster capital was in “ruin.”  Noank a small fishing village on the southeast coast of Connecticut had become a center for the lobster trade in New England.  Noank smacks had delivered live lobsters for a growing New York City market but no longer.  The “live well” in these Noank vessels over time had become a death trap.  The surface waters were so warm lobsters died in live wells before reaching port. The fishery was in ruins and lobster fishers asked for help and that help was lobster hatcheries. 

Trout fishers were also facing these same extreme climate cycle conditions –and brook trout extinction was mentioned in CT in 1901 – trout hatcheries were quickly established in the late 1890’s as cold water brook trout habitats now “failed.”  While lobsters and trout fishers watched these habitat failures they recorded it in their observations and most likely wondered what seemed to be so bad for them (low catches), brought oyster growers and then blue crabbers much delight.  Oyster sets and blue crab populations now grew larger in this climate cycle.  The Connecticut oyster sets in the early 1890s were intense and widespread.  Rhode Island in 1903 predicted a huge blue crab shed (softshell) industry and could be a national leading blue crab state.

The year the lobsters died – 1898-99 was the strongest Connecticut oyster set ever recorded at that time and in a few years New Bedford, Massachusetts became a significant producer of blue crabs.  By 1912, Southern New England was awash in blue crabs.  Rhode Island issued a report on its fast growing soft shell shedding industry.  The habitat changes in play was to reverse the abundance of many species.  By 1905, the Southern New England lobster fishery had failed, black water deaths were mentioned as with the rotten egg sulfur smells in coves and bays – inshore fishers now faced small but determined bacteria and the sulfur cycle (See When Connecticut’s Rivers Ran Black, CT Explored, Inc., by William Devlin).  However, the extreme heat not only brought changes in species (such as the bluefish) but also human disease.  The two would become associated to the numbers of bluefish and in one instance human disease on Nantucket Island (Elenore Saunders “The Bluefish, Unsolved History, Spencer Fullerton Board’s Window into Southern New England’s Coastal Fisheries” Trinity College Hartford, CT (2018).  In hot conditions bluefish thrived but also appeared at the same time as disease, and disease stopped when bluefish left Nantucket.  The heat would likely support increases in vibrio bacteria, and sulfide impacts upon oyster meats – described as “thin” poor condition or water bellies in present clay literature, but look how closely comments resemble comments today – from Saunders (2018), who quotes Noah Webster in 1800, pg. 31:

“In the years 1793-4, the oysters on the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island were all sickly watery and tasteless, and wholly un fit for food, and in some instances, brought on nausea or sickness in those who ate them.”

This was a period of heat in New England.  We know that today oysters, when subjected to sulfide, stop eating.  If long enough, they starve to death.  The heat also allowed Connecticut to raise the silkworm.  However, this same heat was responsible for an increase in sulfide.  Oysters and shellfish subjected to sulfide tend to have watery meats.

This is the same description used in the shellfish literature in recent times as “water bellies.”  What sickness associated with extreme heat (it is during this time that lobsters became scarce in Rhode Island and Connecticut) is likely the rise of vibrio bacteria (totally unknown to writers two centuries ago) that thrives in heat and found in shellfish in extremely hot low oxygen conditions.

Extreme heat is associated with diseases both human and those fish and shellfish that live in shallow water.  The New England periods of heat are correlated with drought and if long enough the dreaded forest fires.  We need to examine the history Native Americans left us with the first inhabitants to better understand how climate influences our fisheries here today.  For example, archeologists, such as Elizabeth Little of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, studied the remains of shell middens on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. 

Elizabeth A. Little, Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society – Volume 49, No. 2, October 1988, Late Woodland Nantucket Diet by Elizabeth A. Little Nantucket Archaeological Study #9 Nantucket Historical Association Nantucket Mass 1991.

In Volume 47, No. 2, October 1986 (Bluefish), Little mentions a Native American reference to heat drought and the abundance of bluefish, this segment is found:

“Bluefish have disappeared from Nantucket waters for varying periods of time according to legends and records.  The Indian Legend says that in prehistoric times they disappeared and an old chief prophesized that when Nantucket suffered a disastrous fire, the bluefish would return.  The legend is still remembered and at times events have convinced some people that it is true.” 

In our climate past, hot dry cycles were times of greatest fire danger.  In 1900, Connecticut would report numerous forest fires.  The number of forest fires would lead to the creation of fire districts.

Climate change would vanquish more lobsters than we ever could or even dream of.  Sulfur killed the young and old alike – no mercy was shown for cooler oxygen organisms was shown during this hot climate period.  It was a seafood slaughter of unpresented scale.  I term this period the Great Heat 1880-1920 with much credit to John C. Hammond on Cape Cod a retired oyster fisher who urged me to investigate this part of New England’s fisheries history.  This “heat” was the heat waves which caused so many summer shore communities to be established and remains today as testimony to the great hardship to Southern New England fish and fishers then faced.  City residents also fled (those who could) the heat and the death and disease that accompanied these killer heat waves.  In 1899, there was no ice – an “ice famine” occurred sending the price of ice to soar.  The summer and fall of 1898 had been so hot – lakes and ponds did not freeze – ice supplies dwindled as the continued warmth melted what remained in storage.  Trains from cities were so crowded it at times blocked rail freight transit – and in a part the decision to double track the shore rail CT line occurred in 1891 – as a result of the increasing heavy summer use.  Lobsters sent from the Wilcox Train Crossing in Mystic (Quiambaug) arrived in New York City dead with red (black) tails (Wilcox family fisheries history accounts to Tim Visel).

In the face of such extreme climate change, fishers were as much victims as farmers with a lost crop from drought – good regulations could not make it rain and the same could be said for lobster regulations then and now.  Did the Southern New Haven Lobster hatchery effort help the return of the lobster- yes it did but what would ultimately rebuild the natural habitat capacity was the return of cold.  Cold water meant more oxygen and more oxygen in the shallows would finally break the sulfur cycle grip on the stage 4 lobster habitat – now termed essential or providing critical habitat services.  We call that today sulfate bacterial reduction.  The story of lobster habitat quality is that of the sulfur cycle – warm water or cold.  In cold, kelp-cobblestone was the habitat for small lobsters.  In heat, thick growths of eelgrass made matters only worse.

We can’t have Dr. Bumkus, or Dr. Field and come before us to explain the heat waves of the 1890s but we can read what they did and tried to do such as to rebuild the southern New England lobster stocks.  We can review the lobster hatchery resources themselves, climate reports, fisher reports and catch reports.  The agricultural industry was dealing with old world wheat plant disease brought to the new world.  This disease was termed “take all” as it often did in wheat fields.  Here, agricultural researchers have built a detailed habitat history for this wheat pathogen.  In the marine field, much work remains to be done – my view, Tim Visel.  We can build a climate habitat history for this turn of the century lobster crash (clearly detailed in the landing statistics) and make some comparisons to the lobster crash in Southern New England a century later.

But we can only do so if we make these hatchery records/reports available to lobster fishers and the public and fully disclose what was happening in the shallows during this period.  That unfortunately has not occurred.  Lobster fishers do not have an accurate account to what happened a century ago or in this century – no one it seems is putting the habitat quality pieces together, we seem focused upon only industry regulation and at times those now appear to work against habitat capacity or bird feeder effect (trap reduction).  We have altered the carrying capacity for lobsters and that makes an historical habitat review all the more necessary – if not critical at this point.  A recent Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission document titled Addendum 23 to Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster appeared August 2014 make a slight mention of habitat quality in the shallows as “biologically relevant odor plumes” (pg 10) but does not describe them (sulfate reduction?).  The report concentrates on chemical and biological life science lobster attributes but needs expanded habitat reviews – especially habitat failure in high heat –by organic manure and paper mill impacts in many sulfur reducing shallows a century ago. 

I have suggested to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that much of this effort could include a full review of the habitat conditions that occurred in Southern New England in 1898-1905 and 1998-2005 – take 2 to 4 years and present this habitat history to the lobster fishery of New England.  That would include all the New England states making available all lobster hatchery records – state lobster hatchery reports – reports about the lobster industry collapse (fisher reports) habitat observations from inshore seine surveys (Rhode Island I feel has the best records) and compare them to the rise of blue crabs after each “lobster failure.” 

I think that this habitat review would find the 1898-1905 lobster die off and the 1998-2005 lobsters die off are remarkably the same- both were followed by a dramatic increase in blue crabs – both occurred in “great heats” and lobsters recovered when it turned cooler – by 1950 the Southern New England blue crab fisheries that flourished in the 1900’s heat waves were almost gone.  It got so cold in the 1950’s that the expense to heat seawater systems in state/federal lobster hatcheries caused many of them to close as well.  They just did not seem as important in a colder climate cycle.  This is when the NAO was in a negative phase as 1968 was the coldest period for the NAO – after 1968 the climate moderated and after 1972 warming became more intense.  Storms that ravaged the Atlantic seaboard diminished.  As waters warmed the cool clean and green (which was energy to keep its soils healthy) eelgrass gave way to spaghetti like hairy algal blooms in late summer and a dramatic increase in sea lettuce – Ulva species.  If you dragged a small skiff bay scallop dredge you noticed the change in vegetation.  While oystering in the early 1980’s the bloom of Enteromorpha in Clinton Harbor (CT) was so intense you could not fish (1987).  Bay scallopers on the Cape and the few remaining bottom skiff trawlers of Rhode Island Salt Ponds all mentioned the increase of “different” vegetation and the time it took to “pick the weed.”  Small otter trawl nets once came up clean with few pieces of algae or grass.  As the waters warmed the “clean and green” eelgrass became brown and furry or blooms of different algae covered the bottom and made hauling small dredges and scrapes to catch seafood nearly impossible.  The cool water species once abundant and important to inshore fishers vanished.  Within a few years different species now became abundant.  We should ask more questions about that – my view, Tim Visel.           

Lobster Habitats Fail in High Heat 1880-1920 – 1972-2012

In 2002, the incidence of bacterial shell disease in Long Island Sound lobsters greatly increased – as it did for winter flounder flesh “eating” vibrio bacteria in the 1980’s.  This account matched what I had heard at fishing gear workshops that Noank Connecticut went from a lobster capital to lobsters dying on trains to New York City or in live wells before even making shore – it was hot during the turn of the century.  Lobsters died by the millions and during inshore gear workshops later on Cape Cod, I heard much the same thing – a long hot period caused some of the cold water species such as quahaugs and bay scallops to fall – only to see soft shell clams and oysters surge to new production levels.

By 2006, I was convinced that climate conditions were involved in the absence of some species – such as rainbow smelt in 1988 (see The Historical Decline of Rainbow Smelt, Tim Visel and Tom Savoy 1989) and the 1998 lobster die off were connected, a similar warming or “too hot period” that caused a dramatic habitat reversal.  That same year I developed a proposal for the Connecticut Council for Environment Quality – a watch dog environmental agency for the State of Connecticut – with a simple request to seek release the historical records about the Connecticut lobster hatchery built also in Noank (after turn of the century in response to a region wide lobster collapse) and any inshore drag seine surveys for smelt (for about 50 years, Connecticut conducted a shallow water seine survey program for eastern CT Coves).  The proposal then mentioned this period as the “summer trade” thousands of small cabins or cottages were built at this time.   The need to carefully review Connecticut’s fishery records (stored in the Old Lyme office of DEEP) has been resubmitted many times since 2006.  I feel we need to review habitat conditions during this period recorded by these inshore fyke and seine fisheries records.  Most Connecticut’s residents are not familiar with this part of our fisheries history – that following a bitter cold mid 1870’s temperatures moderated and then increased to “hot” by the mid 1890’s.  Shore residents recall this period as the “summer trade” thousands of summer residents came to hotels built at this time.

In 1898, the extreme heat waves killed hundreds of city residents in New York and Boston and damaged our lobster fishery as well.  The lobster die off started in the shallows first in southern areas, but as each summer warmed it spread into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay (See IMEP #62: The New England Lobster Convention of 1903, posted April 6, 2017, The Blue Crab Forum™) and then north into Buzzards Bay (See IMEP #72: New England Lobster Make a Comeback 1912 to 1972, posted July 31, 2019, The Blue Crab Forum™).

By 1900, Southern New England’s lobster industry was in “ruin” as lobster fishers appealed to states and the United States Fish Commission a powerful government agency in its day.  After a period of study which according to my records lasted about one year – The US Fish Commission suggested that coastal states build lobster hatcheries – in time of resource collapse they had turned to aquaculture promoted by Dr. George Field believing both that we had caused the collapse by overfishing – and realized that a recruitment failure had also occurred – although fishers were blamed for overharvesting “shorts” (which did occur do doubt) they soon reported there were no small lobsters in some places at all – and that the size missing the most was a stage today termed Stage 4 – a size most vulnerable to heat and inshore habitat quality failure. 

It certainly came at a time when inshore pollution was also high and that also took a share of the blame then.  Surprisingly climate patterns (cycles) did not get a look although Rhode Island raised this issue in 1903.  In fact, in many fisheries documents mention a dramatic rise in blue crab populations following the 1898 Southern New England lobster die off was not felt related but considered the increase of blue crabs as an interesting and a perplexing question but not connected to dramatic changes in habitat quality.  By 1912, Noank lost its prestige as once a place of Noank smacks that once dominated the lobster trade – inside hull live wells were deadly in August as lobsters died before making shore.  Many of these live well fishing smacks were sold to Maine fishers when northern waters were still cooler.  Other smacks were hauled out and live wells plugged, changing to day fisheries or converted to hold ice and salt to preserve fish.     

In the heat, blue crab populations to the surprised Rhode Island fishery area mangers soared and became the “crab question” but by the 1950’s only the Massachusetts lobster hatchery remained, why?  Several 1950 and 1960 lobster publications mention this turn of the century massive lobster hatchery response, but reports in the 2000’s onward they are not mentioned.  Some recent reports tend to diminish the lobster hatchery effort and impacts they had upon rebuilding southern CT lobster fishery – they contain a bias in reflection as they fail to mention climate conditions that happened during this period but it is a significant part of our lobster fisheries history, none the less.  This hatchery effort the reasons for it and what climate and energy conditions happened during that time (1890’s) need a full review – my view.  So much of our fisheries history now contains a “spin” that emphasizes pollution and overfishing with climate cycles (patterns) relegated to a dusty corner of the room along with our fishery records.  The long term history of habitat quality and habitat carrying capacity could help answer many lobster population questions about climate change today – my view.

The Boothbay Lobster Hatchery Was The Nation’s Largest

In the early 1900’s, the US Fish Commission Lobster Hatchery at Boothbay Maine (this facility has a long rich fisheries history see Maine DMR report, How Did The Hatchery Come To Boothbay Harbor for more details) soon dominated New England’s lobster hatchery efforts.  The State of Connecticut Report of Fish and Game Commissions 1911-1912 report mentions the scale of the effort and compares it to Boothbay’s effort (CT report of 1912) “The Noank Station (Noank Lobster Hatchery) collected 1,474 “ripe” egg bearing lobsters which yielded 25, 585, 990 eggs resulting in hatching almost 23,000,000 fry (stage 4) were planted in coastal waters.  However, it also mentions the Boothbay Maine lobster hatchery effort.

“The lobster fishery in the State of Maine is the largest in the United States, and nearly 14,000 egg lobsters were collected the past season for the federal hatchery (Lobster) at Boothbay Harbor.  This is the largest collection ever made in one season.”     

The number of stage 4 lobsters released from this hatchery was in the millions.  (With a natural survival rate of less than 2% any hatchery effort “helped” the fishery).  This reproductive emphasis – it’s not the number of eggs but the number of eggs that survive is the heart of the issue today, is it habitat biology or is it us.  That disconnect between bio capacity and habitat quality still continues today.

By the teens colder temperatures in New England was turning the balance from blue crabs to lobsters.  Fishers noticed this increase and attributed the increase of “shorts” in shallow waters to hatchery efforts.  Shorts returned to the shallows in large numbers by 1910 fishers praised lobster hatchery efforts, which no doubt helped “lobsters return.”

From the 1911-1912 State of Connecticut Report of Fish and Game Commissioners is found this quote from a Guilford, CT lobster fisher.
Guilford {Report from lobster fishers}

“The marked increase of small lobsters is very gratifying, and is sufficient proof that the hatchery is one of the greatest institutions in the state, and I shall do all I can to help the commissioners of fisheries and game in the protection and propagation.”

Blue crabs now entrenched in Narragansett Bay by the teens slowly faded as waters turned colder and storm filled as the climate changed.  By 1931 commercial blue crabbing failed in Narragansett Bay (Buzzards Bay in 1924) as severe bitter cold winters retuned bay scallops to Narragansett Bay also in 1924.  As the “old normal” slowly returned to New England blue crab populations declined as lobster habitat quality increased.  We may continue to debate how significant the federal/state lobster hatchery efforts were to restoring local lobster populations (for local areas they no doubt helped) but as New England water cooled, they helped jump start populations which then naturally “came back.”  What caused an end of the hatchery efforts in the northern sections was the increased cost of heating culture water – as New England sea surface temperatures cooled lobster hatchery operators now had to heat the water, this is mentioned in many books.  In the great lobster chase – by Mike Brown (1985) refers that by 1948 – it took only 15 days to raise the lobsters to first to fourth at 65oF, at 58o F it took 25 days and the cost of heating this cold seawater was tremendous.  The Boothbay hatchery component was closed in 1951.  Other New England States followed the climate pattern had turned colder and storm filled kelp cobble stone habitats replaced eelgrass meadows of the “Great Heat.”  Their need (lobster hatcheries) was questioned in the decades that followed by the overriding factor was “the cold” returned.  A better question would be why the lobster hatchery effort was needed at all?

It’s interesting to note that few connected the cold water to increasing habitat quality – the Wickford RI Lobster Hatchery records reported June 76o F seawater temperatures in 1905 making stage four culture possible.  By the late 1940’s, New England colder winters returned, blue crabs became scarce and lobster shorts could again be found in the shallows.  It wasn’t pollution abatement (the 1950’s is not a period well known for United States pollution concern).  It wasn’t overfishing – lobster regulations had already shifted lobster habitat carrying capacity towards smaller but more lobsters – it was climate change.  After the great heat 1880-1920, a great cold now held New England in its grasp and the largest habitat change player didn’t even get a mention – nature.  This cold was to last until 1972 when New Haven Harbor (CT) trawl net surveys listed one of the most prevalent crustaceans as the lobster.  In 2011, it would be the blue crab that filled New Haven Harbor waters, not lobsters.

Great Cold and Great Heat

Extreme temperature climate changes alter the habitat carrying capacity for lobsters.  Governed by its biological (life science) limitations, habitat quality is both climate and energy dependent.  Bottlenecks can occur from two extremes – extreme cold – slow growth pushes the carrying capacity to more smaller lobsters, warming to extreme heat – faster growth to more larger lobsters.  It is the high heat factor that creates a larger problem, a stage four failure is masked by faster growing adults.  Since habitat is limiting, more larger lobsters means less space (habitat) for those smaller (they also eat each other which does not help) lobsters.  Just before a lobster population crash, catches will actually increase – and historically the faster the upswing the sharper the fall.  There is just so much space and food naturally – unless of course we look at aquaculture.  This is the lobster hatchery effort after lobster catches plummeted in 1898. By this time many of the lobster canneries had already closed as lobsters became “smaller” and then uneconomical to can them.

Habitat Carrying Capacity Can Change

One of the ways that natural carrying capacity can change is the expansion and retraction of habitat space.  It could be argued that heat is more of a factor – here in southern New England high water temperatures not only drives lobsters to deeper cooler waters but eliminates critical or the essential nursery shallows.  These are the near shore areas of the stage four – correctly identified as the “bottleneck” during the extremely hot period in the 1890’s.  The truth of the matter is high heat drives the shallows to organic sulfate reduction – the bacterial breakdown of a now accumulating marine compost (sapropel), which poisons with sulfide nearshore waters.  In northern areas the heat can influence predator prey relationships – it must be noted that a major lobster predator species (besides us of course) cod fish is at historic low population levels.  But lobsters can move as well, and we have two recent climate patterns to look at and study.  The 1898 Southern New England lobster die off, and the 1998 Southern New England lobster die off, exactly one century apart and look at habitat conditions and fishery regulations in the lobster fishery.  We have the historic reports it’s just a desire to examine them.  Most fishers will agree that when faced with warm waters lobsters try to move into cooler ones.  I contacted the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lobster habitat group several years ago about this – I had reviewed some of the current changes in the lobster fishery noting the similar feature of a 1898 die off and the New England response following 1998 (2009).  Many states (including Maine) built lobster hatcheries a century ago and focused on the heat sensitive stage most habitat sensitive stage 4 – Rhode Island is credited with the most significant lobster culture break through with larval upwellers in its Wickford Rhode Island Lobster Hatchery in 1905.  This effort included a huge underwater paddle to bring food to the larval culture bags hung off a raft.

The long period of heat eventually destroyed the Southern New England lobster fishery – but Maine did not collapse the warmer waters did not impact Maine’s fishery as much as it did Rhode Island – Connecticut and southern Massachusetts.  What kept Maine from harvesting more was codfish – the cold 1870’s had been great for them they were plentiful can should be considered a major factor.  Report of the Inland Fisheries pg. 69 1904 VIII (Rhode Island) “Preliminary Inquiry into the Natural History of the Paddler Crab (Callinectes hastatus) with Remarks on the Soft Shell Crab Industry in Rhode Island” Rhode Island Researchers were surprised by the increase of blue crabs in Narragansett Bay – providing optimism about the economic potential – even just a few months after the 1903 lobster convention, as lobsters declined blue crabs surged in abundance. 

Declining catch at the turn of century in Maine can be explained by increased predation of small lobsters by codfish – fishing regulations had protected medium size lobsters – most of the larger lobsters inshore had long been caught up so the population dynamics of habitat capacity came into play – by shifting the capacity towards more yet smaller lobsters – we made codfish a ready meal as cooler waters enabled them to come close to shore consuming vast numbers of shorts in the shallows.  In time larger lobsters would also be protected although the breeding rate is best in smaller lobsters.  Shorts thrown back in day light in areas of smooth bottoms were likely lost to the fishery.  Lobsters are nocturnal.  Although regulations protected a spawning population, and those lobsters returned from traps but not of legal size in daylight nothing could protect the young lobster from their apex predators.  A horrific attrition of young lobsters and cold water slow growth diminished catches of Maine lobsters for a half century – until waters warmed again beginning in 1972.  Lobster growth sped up and shorts now took advantage of thousands of “lobster feeders” – the lobster traps themselves.  By this time regulations had not only altered the habitat carrying quality as well (gauge limit – V notch programs) but habitat quality as well.  (Artificial reefs can alter habitat quality as they will be most successful in southern areas in areas of few ledges, boulders and cobblestone/kelp areas).  The lobster fishery took on more of an extensive aquaculture practice –protecting breeders and feeding the young shorts.  (This is sometimes called the bird feeder effect).

I was fortunate to work with Dr. Andreas Holmsen while attending the University of Rhode Island - I had applied for some financial assistance and was given a work study grant.  My fisheries background had Dr. Holmsen pick me and I will be forever in his debt – I learned much from my semester “job” and shared an interest in history as well as fisheries management. One of his projects (several of my URI professors had “grants” themselves research and investigations in addition to teaching assignments) concerned uneaten fish waste from the first salmon grow pen culture out systems in Maine.  Some salmon farms had located in some coves which later proved to have sluggish circulation or tidal restrictions (mostly natural) in short time feeding had started organic matter sulfate reduction beneath them.  Sapropel sulfides had changed species diversity in some areas of the pens.  What was accumulating under some operations was organic based sapropel – at first an attractant to shrimps and worms that consume it, but as deposits grew seemed to repel fish (a chemical sulfide block).  Dr. Holmsen called me into his office, I was to research the impacts of uneaten fish (food) from these operations.  It is here that my decade long skiff fishing for lobsters in CT came into play after a few days work – I asked about discarded lobster bait on the bottom as many of these operations claimed that lobstering actually improved in the same areas - (lobsters in high oxygen areas can burrow into sticky sapropel – the bottom can look like fiddler crab burrows on a salt marsh bank.  Western Long Island in the 1980’s Sound became well known for this type of organic matter habitat).  If lobstering can occur, should we include that dead fish source as well, he replied “include it” and as the study increased.  In scale, I asked if I should include lobster bait, as a separate category (in pounds) as a comparison – to what organic matter was being deposited – again I was encouraged to continue.  Using my own lobstering experience I began to generate some numbers around the use of lobster bait – the numbers soon made an emerging salmon industry look insignificant (I am certain that some local impacts were not- sapropel can form even in colder temperatures) the lobster bait (pounds of fish) numbers now became huge – by the time I asked about recreational fishing bait and trawl net discards as additional organic matter sources someone else did not like the numbers as well – Dr. Holmsen asked for my notes and said that this study had been “postponed.”  I did not think much about it then, there were plenty of other projects.  (Dr. Holmsen did not lack for grants) but the scale of feeding stations (lobster pots) left its mark.  Our lobster traps were marine “bird houses,” providing both shelter and food for undersized lobsters.  What lobster fisheries had done (myself included) was alter the carrying capacity for small lobsters with the fishery of feeding and protection in sunlight (in 1978, I tried to get CT look at day time short lobster release as a loss, see “Can We Rebuild Our Lobster Fishery” EPA Guideline Review – Sept. 2009 – T. Visel) in other words farming the lobsters (extensive aquaculture practices) was underway, the extent of which made Audubon’s bird feeders small in comparison.  The conversion from wood to metal traps extended this capacity again – free of marine growths and wood worms traps could stay in longer – the feeding stations were now 24/7.  We then began to discuss this feeding impact upon the lobster fishery – Dr. Holmsen felt it was more of an issue in shallow waters than deep but did agree the food (feeding) aspects did resemble culture practices.  As Audubon chapters had done with bird houses and bird seed – wildlife (bird) habitat capacity improvement was possible (This was later extended to a very successful Osprey nest platform habitat creation program along the CT coast in the 1990’s).

How does this impact lobster populations long-term?

So how does this feeding impact the lobster fishery today – it has much impact but lobster fishers only seem to obtain the regulatory side – and very little of the long-term habitat fisheries history to consider.  This needs to stop in my view – we have the lobster habitat history, something that I feel lobster fishers should know about.  The heats and then cold cycles in New England’s fisheries history, the massive lobster fishery research efforts and the once series of lobster hatcheries built along New England’s coast over a century ago should be available to review. 

Snapshot ecology is a problem not only in the lobster fisheries but many fisheries.  I waited in anticipation for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for the American Stock Assessment Peer review report, June 8-11 2015 Wood’s Hole, Mass to see it if included a habitat discussion on the impacts of high heat sulfate reduction in the Southern New England fishery or the carrying capacity influence of the lobster industry in northern waters.  I was disappointed in both areas.  Although in the landings section (D) pg. 31 it was mentioned that “terms such as commercial extinction were in use in 1903” discussion as to why it was mentioned or that this period was unique (climate cycle) or that from 1889 to 1915 landings declined was not (The Great Heat period lasted roughly from 1880-1920).  No mention of any region wide changes in sea water temperatures (See IMEP #55A The Fall of New England’s Cold Water Fisheries – 1890 to 1910, posted Oct. 1, 2015, The Blue Crab ForumTM).  Several long term temperatures studies are included but not measured against the North Atlantic Oscillation nor indexed for shallow water habitat quality of bacterial sulfate reduction.  These would be key factors in heat as sea plants suffocated shallow habitats or died from sulfide toxicity.  This was to cause massive dieoffs of eelgrass in very shallow waters.

One of the factors associated with the gradual warming of New England’s waters in the late 1890’s and 1900’s is that lobster hatcheries kept very detailed surface sea water temperature records (I have a good number of the RI Wickford lobster hatchery records) but high temperature was not considered as a factor in stage 4 recruitment limitations concerning sapropel – sulfate reduction in southern New England waters a century ago.  When oxygen levels declined in sea water, this opened the pathway for sulfate bacterial processes.  The result of this was a sulfide smell – often described as “rotting eggs.”  Researchers did mention that Block Island (Rhode Island) fishers reported strange schools of fish never seen before, or then the sudden increases in black sea bass and also the blue crab around 1905.     

The decline of lobster landings between 1880-1920 after some very cold years in the 1870’s - were reviewed as only regulatory solutions to manage the fisheries.  Although large decreases in “landings” catch rates and average sizes were noted in all of the New England (pg. 84) no mention of increasing heat – a lobster die off of 1898-99 in Narragansett Bay or the die off that spread to all of southern New England by 1905 (ASMFC 2015).  The absence of small lobsters and appeals of lobster fishers that resulted in a huge federal/state hatchery initiative – the habitat failure of inshore waters from heat obtained only had a seven word mention of lobster hatcheries on pg. 30 “and hatchery stock enhancement through hatchery propagation.”

The conclusions mentioned on pg. 86 does include accurate comments but refer only to management responses of a wide spread devastating habitat failure – found in all state records as “heat” killer heat waves or hot terms but not mentioned as having any significant habitat or population significance.  That is one of the problems of single species management as this case history ignored the dramatic rise of the blue crab in Rhode Island after 1901.

An indication began to mirror the 1898-99 lobster die off which included a later surprising surge of blue crabs.  By 2010, the same surge in blue crabs had happened again.  By 2008, the 1898 lobster die off and 1998 lobster die off were so similar (the habitat loss of the shallows from sapropel – sulfate reduction) and movement of the lobsters to deeper waters, I started to review what lobster hatchery information I had.  The management measures enacted after the 1899 die off were largely ineffective – some were even repealed.  Management measures in the face of massive habitat quality shift caused by an extreme climate cycle precisely the same as a century ago are of little value – colder waters will return the lobsters as it did before.   

I contacted the Atlantic Marine States Marine Fisheries Commission and suggested that they consider a two to four year supplemental report which includes a full habitat history report (and climate change) the rise of sapropel and sulfate reduction in southern New England lobster habitats in the 1890s and a comparison to the 1990’s.  Conservation and regulation cannot improve habitat quality changes that appear to be cyclic.  Many lobster fisheries are not aware of the large state/federal lobster hatchery effort nor the horrific habitat impacts of the immense heat waves during this 1880-1920 period.  When the climate moderated in the 1940’s colder waters allowed shallow waters (kelp cobblestone) to again support stage 4 lobsters.  Lobsters production then increased, until another climate cycle of heat occurred which began in 1972.

Any lobster fisher interested in learning about the recent lobster habitat history might want to review these posts on the Blue Crab forum™.

1)   IMEP #54: Southern New England Lobster Fisheries Collapse of 1898, posted July 30, 2015.
2)   IMEP #36: Can We Rebuild Artificial Reefs for Lobsters, Tautog and Black Sea Bass?, posted November 3, 2014.
3)   IMEP #11: Historic Climate Impacts to Fisheries, posted February 2014.
4)   IMEP #9: Historic Importance of Kelp Lobster Population – The New England Hurricanes, posted February, 2014.
5)   IMEP #6: The Lobster Die off of 1898 and the Great Heat, posted February 24, 2014.

The first report for rebuilding our lobster fishery “Can We Rebuild our lobster Fisheries” was made available in September 2009 and reposted as a capstone project in 2012 – that report is 39 pages and includes a lengthy discussion of habitat carrying capacity into Maine and the Southern New England die off of 1898-99.  It is now on The Sound School website under publications.  Lobster fishers might want to give it a look.

Increasing The Gauge and Lobster Fisheries Inshore

Inshore lobster habitat capacity is largely governed by what is termed a “bottleneck” as compared to reproductive capacity – for lobsters you could have tremendous reproductive capacity (lots of eggs) but if of all those lobsters were competing for space or food you would have devastating intra species competition – in other terms most would eat each other leaving older larger lobsters as apex predator habitat territory or the large “ground keepers” a term mentioned so many times in the historical lobster literature reference.

In Southern New England, the habitat bottleneck is kelp, as the coast here does not contain the inshore rocks and reefs of the Maine coast but a sandy gravel residue of glacier outwashes (Long Island Sound was once a fresh water lake) if lobster megalops set an open sand without kelp or bivalve oyster shell for cover it was soon the food of many fish and crabs.  Megalops setting in kelp however was a different story as I once experienced myself growing up in Madison, CT.  While trapping small eels in metal circular eel traps.  Here traps set over cobble stone kelp beds yielded small lobsters (with eels) about the size of shrimp, traps set way from the kelp did not contain them.  By the eighth grade I realize that kelp “held” the small lobsters over any clear or smooth habitats even if they were close to each other, kelp was essential or critical to the lobster fishery here – as Tautog make short work of any exposed lobster returned in bright sun and needed the cover of the kelp bed during the day.  (This is a huge predator – prey issue that will provide information only with detailed artificial reef studies – my view, Tim Visel).

Inshore lobster habitat quality is largely governed by temperature.  In the late 1960’s the July lobster run happened off Madison between June 17 and June 21 – somewhere at the end of school year.  While getting our lobster pots (a term that dates back to setting round traps in creeks – that when stacked resembled an open top “pot”) ready with my brother Raymond we would hope that we would have one or two days after school got out to fully set in our 100 or so wood pots so to “catch the run.”  Some years we did but some years it was “early by two or three days, but it was largely consistent from 1965 to 1981 – a warming spring would deliver bottom shallow water of 57oF and lobsters would change from large hard shell deep red “grounds keepers” to a blue, green active lobster of hard yet clean new shells – absent the mussels or barnacles of the groundkeepers with white molars teeth on large thick shell claws.  The early spring run favored us – as with our 16 foot Brockway Skiff lobstered where no one else dared to go, amongst the boulders and reefs in the shallows where an inboard lobster boat would be aground.  As such, we caught lobsters in the shallows when they arrived first “on the beach.”  And the water visibility then at times was very clear, ten feet or more.

Upon coming up to the shallow reefs of East Wharf Madison we could see the claws of lobsters darting out of the wood traps – in patches of sand between reefs just a few days before only held one or two shorts.  The run inshore happened that quickly the number of lobsters burrows did not change, the bait was consistent, salted menhaden we would dry salt in barrels each fall (a great spring bait we would learn from Charles Beebe who showed us how to salt bunker menhaden in wood barrels buried in the margins of salt marsh) what changed was one day the lobsters were scarce and two days later our pots were full – the “run” was on.

We would have a great few weeks inshore until the middle of July but then we had to move our pots to the middle grounds out of the shallows of the beach and now Madison Reef and Charles Reef deeper cooler waters and by August 15 Faulkner’s Island, Goose Island in the deep Long Island Sound holes of 90 feet.  By the end of August, the lobstering was terrible in shallow water and on hot days we would drop pots by the beach in preparation of hauling out to prevent wood worm damage (in those days we rotated wood traps – drying them out to kill worms as we did not drip them in chemicals as clean wood out fished any others) and leave them overnight.  Once in a while we would catch a lobster even with no bait and reaching in – it did not move, it was limp and barely alive.  When we picked them up the claws just hung – they appeared almost dead.  We surmised that larger lobsters did not do well in this “hot” shallow water and as catches themselves reflected a deeper cooler water movement.  We noticed this ourselves as sometimes unusual shorts those damaged or had different colors would be caught inshore – we later caught in deeper water later in the same summer.  One particular short was a calico color missing a claw and two walking legs on its right side, that we catch two or three times fishing a series of three reefs called the triangle – off Middle Beach Road in ten feet of water.

Later that August we caught the same short on Charles Reef in 40 feet of water about 2 miles from the triangle.  I am certain that some other lobster fishers have also had similar experiences with sublegal lobsters (or perhaps tagging studies) but to us as the waters warmed lobsters were still active in cooler deeper waters.

Our part of the coast (Connecticut) we felt could not sustain very large lobsters.  The inshore water just was too warm in the 70’s, in the 1990s at times in the high 80’s by the beach.  Water in salt marshes flows over them is a natural heat sink the brown/black peat absorbs solar sun rays which in pools on salt marshes that could reach into the 90’s which on the outgoing tides delivered a stream of hot water to the shore.  Swimmers that experienced this heating impact quickly noticed a very warm plume of water – sometimes 10 degrees or more warmer entering Long Island Sound (as my family did living next to Tom’s Creek in Madison, CT).

This change in the timing of the lobster run by temperature was interesting to me and by 1974 started to research these questions.  I want to thank Eric Smith of CT DEP for his many responses to my lobster questions (many) years ago.  Thanks also to those organizations who have put US Fish Commission lobster reports online – especially the Friends of Penobscot Bay.  Many of the turn of the century lobster reports are now online.  They are a tremendous help in better understanding our lobster fisheries history – my view, Tim Visel.

Appendix #1

Eric Smith
Administrative Commissioner
State of Connecticut DEP Marine Region
P.O. Box 79
Old Lyme, Ct 06371
Timothy C. Visel, Coordinator
The Sound School Regional
Vocational Aquaculture Center
July 19, 2006
Re: Lobster history- recent conversation
Hi Eric:
I found some reference about the early lobster management or lack of.

The practice of taking lobsters under 10 inches in length for the canneries would soon have some resource implications. Eastport, Maine canneries reported that at first lobsters ranged from 3-10 pounds but after about 4 years the average weight dropped to 2 pounds (George Goode pg. 691. Vol. 12). It was a huge industry at the time and had two distinct "seasons" July 1 to August 1 and Sept 10 to Nov/Dec. Prices paid were from 1 cent to 4 cents per pound, the higher price paid for Connecticut and Massachusetts lobsters. In 1880 canneries produced over 2 million pounds of product By 1878, huge decreases in lobster populations were beginning to be a concern for canneries and looked to other products, the sardine for example.

The New London lobster fishing would decline from 1847 to 1870, until according to one report, the "lobsters are nearly all gone." Mr. Latham of Noank wrote in 1888, "there are ten pots now where there was one ten years ago." (Pg. 711). Connecticut would suffer the most from a lack of lobster regulating, while other states prohibited lobsters under 10 inches Connecticut remained at 6 inches! Changing that in 1878. But by then it was too late. When Connecticut went from 6 to 10 inches, the small lobster population soared and disease occurred in 1886 (scattered reports). Noank lobstermen who sold to the New York markets were successful in convincing the US Fish Commission to build the first US lobster hatchery, at of course Noank because of the disease, it was called Black tail, lobsters would have rotting tail meats. That is why the records of the hatchery operation were so key to the fisheries history in that area. As I mentioned the other day, most of those records were thrown away unfortunately. I did located one reference for the early hatchery from the Southern New England Fisheries Association 1936 Yearbook, (Please see Pg. 43 Noank Hatchery report). It details some of lobster hatchery effort, 492,712 stage four lobsters.
Also you might get a kick out of page 7 organization history.

Appendix #2
Historical Lobster Habitat Study and Discovery Proposal

Sent: Wednesday, January 6, 2016 1:45 PM
To: mware@asfmc

Hello Megan,

I hope that you might be able to direct my email to the proper lobster habitat committee members – and perhaps respond to my proposal below as a follow up to emails several months ago.

My proposal is this – could the ASMFC take two to four years and assemble a climate habitat profile for the period 1880 to 1920 in southern New England for lobsters.  I think that much of my disappointment with the stock assessment peer report (August 2015, which represents a huge undertaking  I am certain) is that climate factors, the 1898-1905 die off of Southern New England Lobster populations was not included.  Part of that climate/habitat discovery process would include the tremendous summer heating and thermal constraints upon cold water species during that time – including the lobster but also impacting Brook Trout, Smelt, Alewife, Bay Scallops and Quahogs as well.

I was anticipating a full habitat review for southern lobster population during this period which led to the establishment of several New England lobster hatcheries and a surprising surge of Blue Crabs post 1900.  Several southern New England areas began to produce measurable quantities of Blue Crabs immediately following the 1898-1905 lobster die off and we have had the same situation occur again a century later.
All the New England states should help with this effort (my view), scanning and making available for all lobster fishers, the lobster habitat observations mentioned in numerous lobster hatchery records during this period.

I have many such records and would, of course, make them available to any such effort.  A few months ago, I mentioned a newsletter effort and attached IMEP #53, which came out shortly before the August assessment.

Please let me know if I can be of any help – I think this topic would be of interest to many lobster fishers.

Appendix #3

Commissioner Sea and Shore Fisheries 1911-1912 Lobster Report
State of Maine
Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries
Rockland, Maine

Lobsters, pg. 16 -

“The branch of the fishery for the past two years shows very satisfactory results, as the total value of the catch paid to the fishermen exceeds 2 million dollars in each year and the average price per pound for 1912 was a little less than the average for 1911.  There has always been and probably will be a difference of opinion as to the best methods to adopt for the protection of the lobster, but from results of experiments that have been made, I believe that the present methods are right and that there is no danger of a depletion of the industry so long as present methods are maintained.  The state of Maine is producing more lobsters and receiving more from them than all the other states of the Union combined, and while some advocate a change in our laws to conform with laws in the other states, the experience in all cases would not seem to warrant such change, but rather the other states should [change theirs].”

James Donohue, Commissioner

Appendix #4

Three State of Connecticut Letters to Timothy Visel

May 18, 1976

Mr. Timothy Visel
38 Pent Road
Madison, CT 06443

Dear Mr. Visel:
Last year’s commercial catch statistics have not been completed as yet.  This data will all be handled by computer and the initial year’s work has required considerable extra effort and modification in the computer programs.
In the future, we expect to have the catch statistics available for distribution sometime in the early spring.
                        Sincerely yours,
                        Cole W. Wilde
                        Cole W. Wilde, Chief

P.O. Box 248
Waterford, CT 06385
Tel. (203) 443 - XXXX

February 14, 1977

Timothy Visel
37 South River Drive
Narragansett, RI 02882

Dear Mr. Visel:
Enclosed are the 1976 computer data sheets for the Commercial lobster fishery.  Our department has no jurisdiction over shellfish.  I suggest that you contact John Baker, Department of Agriculture, Division of Aquaculture, Room 113, State Office Building, Hartford, Conn. 06115.
                        George C. Maltezos
                        George C. Maltezos
Marine Biologist


P.O. Box 248
Waterford, CT 06385
Tel. (203) 443 - XXXX

April 25, 1978

Timothy Visel
38 Pent Road
Madison, CT 06443

Dear Mr. Visel:

Enclosed are two logbooks for the months of June and August, 1977.  Regarding your request for finfish information, monthly and annual summaries of finfish landings for 1977 are available for inspection at our office. Since the printout is approximately three inches thick, we are not able to copy and mail it to all who request it.  However, you can either call for an appointment at our office at which time I can let you record data from the summaries, or you can request by mail exactly what type of information you require and for which species and I can send you that data.  Be aware that landings by individuals are not available to anyone if that might be part of your request.

Landings prior to 1977 are not filed in the computer, therefore, the only data available are those for finfish landed by gill netters and trap netters, etc.  If you wish this type of information, you may request it by mail.
Eric Smith
Eric M. Smith
Staff Biologist


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