Last year, a record 126 million pounds of lobster were caught off the coast of Maine, dropping wholesale prices to $2.69 a pound, an 18-year low. Early reports are showing this season could be just as prolific and seafood markets are stocking up. With a shell disease moving toward Maine’s coastline that renders lobsters unrecognizable and, in some cases, unmarketable, stocking up may be a prudent move.
Fortunately this disease is not harmful to humans but it did affect3 out of every 1,000 lobsters sampled in Maine last year. This epizootic disease is caused by bacteria that eat away at the lobster’s shell. The disease stresses lobsters and can even kill them but it does not taint the meat. New England waters have already suffered damages from this disease.
A state lobster biologist with the Department of Marine Resources, Carl Wilson said the disease first became noticeable in the waters of southern New England in the 1990s. In recent years, 1 in every 3 or 4 lobsters caught in waters off southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island has been diseased.
According to the Associated Press, lobsters account for 65% of the value of Maine’s commercial seafood harvest. Both scientists and lobstermen are highly concerned because the prevalence of the shell disease grew from 2010 to 2012. Wilson feels people should be concerned, but not alarmed, by the numbers.
“But it’s not, considering all the sampling we have and all the caveats of our sampling design,” said Wilson. “But it’s something we are watching.”
ABC News reported that lobsters are one of the most important fisheries in Maine and New England, valued at more than $400 million to fishermen. While diseased lobsters can still be processed, they are harder to sell.
Sampling for the disease began in Rhode Island in 1996 when less than 1% was found to be diseased. In 1997, that number more than quadrupled to 4%. More alarming was the jump to 20% in 1998 with numbers ranging from 18 to 34 percent ever since.
Kathy Castro, a fisheries biologist at the University of Rhode Island Fisheries Center, said the shell disease is linked to a variety of things – rising water temperatures, pollution and low oxygen levels in the water. Young lobsters are able to molt out of the disease when they shed their old shells and grow new ones.
Jeffrey Shields, a marine science professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has been hired to assess some of the diseased lobsters caught off Maine. He feels that due to the sudden increase of shell disease in such a short period of time in southern New England, Maine’s lobstermen and scientists have real reason to be concerned.
“Keep an eye on it. Keep monitoring it. Lobby federal and state agencies to fund research to understand more about it,” said Shields.
Ironically, the Marine Stewardship Council, after studying the strictly regulated Maine fishery for 5 years, awarded Maine lobster its seal for sustainability in March 2013. Hopefully this shell disease will not become such a problem in the Maine waters that they lose that prestigious award.