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Climate & Energy

Ocean Shock: Inside Maine’s great lobster rush

Reuters Staff

01 Nov 2018

A Reuters Special Report.

By Maurice Tamman in Stonington, Maine
Photographs by Shannon Stapleton
Illustrations by Audrey Anderson

The iconic crustaceans have disappeared in waters to the south. If they keep heading north to Canada, high-flying young lobstermen may pay the biggest price.

A lobster tattoo covers Drew Eaton’s left forearm, its pincers snapping at dock lines connecting it to the American flag on his upper arm. The tattoo is about three-quarters done, but the 27-year-old is too busy with his new boat to finish it.

Eaton knows what people here in Stonington have been saying about how much the boat cost him.

“I’ve heard rumors all over town, small town, everyone talks,” he says. “I’ve heard a million, two million.”

Drew Eaton has been lobstering off Maine’s Deer Isle since he was a kid. His newest boat was custom-built last winter.

By the time he was in the third grade, Eaton was already lobstering here on Deer Isle in Downeast Maine. By the time he was in the eighth grade, he’d bought his first boat, a 20-footer, from a family friend. The latest one, a 46-footer built over the winter at a nearby boatyard, is his fourth.

Standing on the seawall after hauling lobster traps for about 12 hours on a foggy day this August, he says he’s making plenty of money to cover the boat loan. He’s unloaded 17 crates, each carrying 90 pounds of lobster, for a total haul of nearly $5,500. It’s a pretty typical day for him.

Eaton belongs to a new generation of Maine lobstermen who are riding high, for now, on a sweet spot of climate change. Two generations ago, the entire New England coast had a thriving lobster industry. Today, lobster catches have collapsed in southern New England, and the only state with a significant harvest is north in Maine, where the seafood practically synonymous with the state has exploded.

The thriving crustaceans have created a kind of nautical gold rush, with some young lobstermen making well into six figures a year. But it’s a boom with a bust already written in its wake, and the lobstermen of the younger generation may well pay the highest price. Not only have they heavily mortgaged themselves with pricey custom boats in the rush for quick profits, they’ll also bear the brunt of climate change – not to mention the possible collapse of the lobstering industry in Maine as the creatures flourish ever northward.

In the U.S. North Atlantic, fisheries data show that at least 85 percent of the nearly 70 federally tracked species have shifted north or deeper, or both, in recent years when compared to the norm over the past half-century. And the most dramatic of species shifts have occurred in the last 10 or 15 years.

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