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Lobster “Canary in Coal Mine” of New England Climate Change?

PHOTO: A new report says lobster fisheries in the Gulf of Maine might be the "canary in the coal mine" for disruptive climate change that is warming New England's coastal waters. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
PHOTO: A new report says lobster fisheries in the Gulf of Maine might be the "canary in the coal mine" for disruptive climate change that is warming New England's coastal waters. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
February 6, 2013

BOSTON - The New England lobster, under threat from disease and invasive species, may be the "canary in the coal mine" of climate disruption, according to a new report that examines case studies from around the nation about how global warming is altering wildlife habitats.

The National Wildlife Federation report points to warming coastal waters that Rick Wahle, a research associate professor at the University of Maine, blames for lobster populations shifting north. They're also experiencing shell diseases and attacks from new predators, Wahle said, adding that with numerous other fisheries in the Gulf of Maine depleted, the lobster's importance looms.

"Lobsters are king," Wahle said. "If lobsters aren't the canary in the coal mine, then we might at least consider them a poster child for marine climate change."

On land, the report says, black bears are hibernating less, and tick populations are growing and threatening moose. Even acorn production is affected by climate change, the report says, challenging birds and other wildlife that depend on them for food.

Shell disease in lobster populations off Cape Cod has moved north, Wahle said, but appears stalled around Cape Anne for now.

"Boston Harbor, North Shore, Mass., has a prevalence level of 10 percent," he said. "It puts the fear of God into Maine fishermen to think of that prevalence level creeping northward."

Climate change could significantly harm New England's economy if it results in disruption of the lobster fishery, Wahle said.

"We're talking about a billion-dollar value to this fishery," he said, "along with the associated and dependent industries."

The report calls for local, state and federal governments to address the underlying causes and cut carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030. It also seeks a transition to cleaner, more secure sources of energy - such as offshore wind, solar power and next-generation biofuels - while avoiding dirty energy choices such as coal and tar-sands oil.

The full report is online at nwf.org.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - MA