A Peculiar Spring for Lobster

by Sandra Dinsmore

Even more surprising,
lobster behavior in
a third area,
the New Jersey coast,
has been just as
strange as that at
Kittery and Cape Ann.

Bizarre was just one of the words fishermen and dealers used trying to describe lobster behavior in the spring of 2012. Not all areas on the New England and mid-Atlantic coast had strange spring lobster catches; Monhegan and Casco Bay had fair amounts of shedders as early as April. That was merely unusual. But in three areas: Kittery, Maine; Cape Ann, Massachusetts; and the New Jersey coast, lobster behaved in unique, record-making ways that brought new meaning to the mystery of the lobster.

In April, Kittery fishermen found themselves landing shedders in surprisingly strong numbers. By May first, 50 to 75 percent of the catch was new shell. Tom Flanigan, co-owner with his brother Kevin, of Seaview Lobster Co., explained, “Before April everything seemed pretty normal in terms of catch volume. We saw a few soft lobsters all winter long,” Flanigan said, but because they were only a small percentage of the catch, he was able to sell them. “By May first, though,” Flanigan said, “the lobsters we were buying from our local boats were more than 50 percent new shells. Quality was fair to poor, the summer market hadn’t started, and our competition was Canadian hard shell. Overall it’s pretty discouraging.”

Bret Taylor, president of Taylor Lobster Company, LLC, also in Kittery, took up the story, saying that the percentage of shedders has continually shifted from that 10 or 20 percent he and Flanigan first saw in April to the 90 percent they saw by mid-June. “Normally” he said, “90 percent soft would be the end of June, first week of July. Compared to last year, [that percentage] was about eight weeks early, and, [in addition], last year [the shedders were] considered to be a little bit early. We first started seeing [soft shells] the middle week of June last year. On this day (June 13th) last year, we had no soft shell lobsters in our tanks. In comparison, [this year] we’ve had them for eight weeks.”

“Soft shell lobsters traditionally are correlated with summer and the tourist industry,” Taylor explained, saying that, “this year the correlation is not there because [they] started so early. We have this heavy volume of lobsters designed for a summer market, and it’s not quite summer yet.” Taylor meant that the traditional summer market for lobster doesn’t start until schools close for summer and people get past graduations and weddings. “That’s a challenge,” he said of the summer lobster market not yet started. “And that’s what has affected price the most.”

Asked how he had managed to sell his soft shell product, Taylor replied, “It’s a struggle. We’ve sold to processors earlier than ever before because of the volume of the soft shells. Typically,” he said, “there hasn't been much processing activity until late June or early July.” But this year, Taylor said he started selling his shedders to processors the first week of June. The behavior of lobster in Southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire this spring has been extraordinarily unusual.

Even more so is the second area that has exhibited unusual behavior: the eastern edge of Cape Ann, Boston’s North Shore. For the first time in memory, instead of trapping the expected Spring Run of large lobster in April, Cape Ann fishermen, like their coastal New Hampshire counterparts, trapped unusual amounts of shedders two months early, which one who has fished those waters for 40 years called unheard of. Noting the difference in price between the expected large hard shell and the regular soft shell that appeared, rueful, he added, “Spring has been very lean without the Spring Run.”

Around April, the fisherman said, “As the weather begins to break, we start to see lobsters begin to pick up a little bit. We catch a few right in the deep, muddy bottom where we left off fishing in the months prior.” He said he then slowly heads back to shallower water along the shore, gradually shifting his gang of traps to slightly shallower water with each haul, and, “Catching a few lobsters along the way.”

At some point during the month, he said a run of different lobsters appears. This run includes many large selects of good quality. Five-inch oversized become common, though sometimes traps become filled with V-notches, which are also part of this pronounced, clearly identifiable migration. The fisherman said, “The size and average weight per hundred count goes up. The quality is excellent.” This run appears to be part of a yearly cycle that lasts into June. Fishermen catch these high quality larger lobsters only on the eastern side of Cape Ann: primarily at Rockport, Pigeon Cove, and the Lanesville shore.

Gradually, he reported, the number of larger lobsters wanes and the percentage of new shells increases. “We start to look for higher amounts of new shells by July 4th,” the fisherman said, “and by mid-July, we have a strong showing of new shells along with a mix of high quality old shells left back from our Spring Run.” By August, he said, those large lobsters have left and fishermen trap new shells until after Thanksgiving, by which time the shells have become firm enough to again be considered better quality. “Fishing remains strong, by our definition, into January,” the fisherman said, adding that some of the larger boats then pursue lobster further offshore, fishing into February. This winter fishing, like the Spring Run, is peculiar to eastern Cape Ann.

“What makes this year so strange,” the fisherman said, “is the lack of any of the large Spring Run lobsters we have always seen each April and the extremely early arrival of new shell lobster.” What flummoxed him even more this June was seeing most of the traps being fished around Cape Ann in areas where he would normally see them being fished in autumn. But some fishermen think that year after year more lobsters are being found out deeper rather than inshore, and that the pattern that seemed so prevalent has shifted in recent years.

Even more surprising, lobster behavior in a third area, the New Jersey coast, has been just as strange as that at Kittery and Cape Ann. Back in January surprised New Jersey fishermen began landing overwhelming numbers of product, trapping from 400 to 3,000 lbs. per haul on weather-related 7- to 10-night sets. The January before, fishermen had trapped a normal 1-1/2 lbs. per trap on shorter sets. In March 2012, they trapped the same 1-1/2 lbs./pot. Then in April catches again jumped to an average of 3 lbs. per pot. One of the larger New Jersey lobster dealers buys from about ten boats. In April 2011 he bought 6,850 lbs. In April 2012, he bought a staggering 63,200 lbs.

Two dealers attributed the unexpected amount of product to lack of snow water run-off and water that never became colder than the mid-40s. May’s catches again overwhelmed dealers and fishermen who trapped “hundred and hundreds of lbs. once a week,” according to a dealer who said that no one in his area had ever seen landings this size. In May 2011, the dealer bought 18,700 lbs., but in May 2012, he bought an astonishing documented 98,380 lbs. from six or seven full-time 40-foot boats. To which numbers he added that New Jersey does not allow the catching of chix. Sizes start with halves. “If fishermen were allowed to catch one more eighth of an inch,” he said, “it would add 30 percent to the catch.”

Loaded with product, the dealer hoped for a good Memorial Day market. “Demand was good for Friday,” he recalled. He then added dryly, “The weatherman forecast rain for Saturday, and everybody stayed home.”

Landings for June were, as they say, off the charts. Fishermen averaged 3 to 5 lbs./pot. The dealer described quality as 50 percent firm shell shedders, 40 percent good firm shell, and 10 percent hard shell. His demand, he said, was “Just okay.”

With more product than he knew what to do with and with local clients loaded, the dealer made some calls, and then drove 6,000 lbs. of lobster to Maine where he sold them to a live market dealer. After praising the buyer, his ethics, and his company, the New Jersey dealer said, “I am very grateful to the Maine dealer for helping me out of a jam.” He then turned around and drove back to New Jersey, where he loaded up again and drove another 350 to 400 miles to Washington, DC and Alexandria, VA, where he sold what he called “a significant amount” of product before reloading and heading back to Maine again.

The Father’s Day market may have saved New Jersey lobster dealers in June, but the Cape Ann fishermen summed up earlier lobster behavior, saying, “This spring tops everything for weird.” He added, “Many are wondering what all this means and how [this spring activity] will affect the rest of the year. Is there a hurricane brewing?” he asked rhetorically. “Do the lobsters know something we don’t?” The New Jersey dealer agreed. Most Augusts, he said, the lobsters stop trapping, and no one knows why. This year’s extraordinary numbers have him concerned for the future.


Early Shedders Generate Speculation

by Sandra Dinsmore

Professor of Oceanography, Marine Biology and Marine Policy with the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences Bob Steneck said of the surprisingly early coast-wide shed, “As far as I know, that is unprecedented.” Steneck is also a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation at Walpole’s Darling Marine Center. Although he admitted nobody knows why the early shed occurred, Steneck said he'd bet it is water temperature-related. “Typically,” he said, “when water temperature on the bottom gets above about 10 degrees C or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, lobster will start molting.” Although those temperatures are not automatic, he noted, there’s a strong correlation, and the winter was pretty warm.

Steneck also suggested there could be larger oceanographic changes that relate to this early shed. “The Gulf of Maine,” he said, “is a complex system and it’s got three water layers.” Although marine scientists typically measure and monitor the surface layer, he said that unless one happens to be in the right place at the right time, “We don’t really know how that’s changing. And if for any reason the Maine intermediate water layer were to change in volume, it actually could send fingers of oceanographically different water to different areas.” Unfortunately, Steneck said, “We just don’t have good real time data about what’s happening to the two bottom layers. We know much more about what’s going on at the sea surface.

“I think it is safe to call the early molt an anomaly,” Steneck stated, “but exactly why this has happened is not known, at least to me.” Steneck thinks if this early molt were cyclical, he and his fellow scientists would have heard of it before, but as far as he knows, this is the first time this has happened.

“The implications are unknown,” Steneck stated, adding, “I’m sure that most of Maine will have a second shed, but exactly when that will happen remains to be determined. If both sheds happen early, we could have a flat fall,” he opined. Flanigan agreed, saying, “All bets are off for the rest of the season.” That the first shed happened so early at so many places, led Steneck to think it had to have been triggered by unusual conditions such as warmer sea temperatures in the coastal zone. He concluded, “We scientists need to record these patterns and continue to explore possibilities of what might be happening in the long term.”