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Baby lobster decline may signal end of high catches

– The number of baby lobsters settling off the rocky coast of Maine continues to steadily decline – possibly foreshadowing an end to the recent record catches that have boosted New England’s lobster fishery, scientists say.

A University of Maine survey of 11 Gulf of Maine locations indicates that young lobsters have declined by more than half of their 2007 levels – significant since lobsters typically take about eight years to reach the legal harvesting size.

The downward trend has lobstermen, retailers, state officials, and ocean scientists concerned that the impact could soon be felt on dinner tables nationwide.

Warmer ocean temperatures, pollution, atmospheric conditions and changes in predation and availability of food could all be to blame, say scientists, state officials and industry leaders. Lobsters are very sensitive to even subtle changes in temperature, scientists say.

Maine Department of Marine Resources officials say the decline does not appear to be the product of overfishing as some environmental groups contend.

The last three years have brought record hauls to Maine’s lobster industry, more than 350 million pounds – by far the most for any three-year period according to state data that go back to 1880. The value of the catch has topped $1 billion for the first time.

Larger catches generally follow high levels years earlier of baby lobster settlement – the process in which young lobsters reach the ocean floor and grow. The boom in lobster catches in recent years follows a trend of heavy lobster settlement in the mid-2000s, university scientists say.

Maine lobsters’ eggs hatch in the early summer and larvae swim freely about six to eight weeks before settling at the ocean bottom as inchlong post-larvae. Divers for the University of Maine have been tracking their settlement rates since the late 1980s.

The American Lobster Settlement Index tracks 13 settlement areas, 11 of which are in the Gulf of Maine, two in Canada and three in Massachusetts. All show decline, scientists said.

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