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Learning What Lobstermen (and Lobsters) Know about Climate Change

Story posted July 11, 2007

lobster boats

Sometimes the most valuable research a scientist can do involves getting out of the lab and talking to people whose livelihoods are enmeshed in the issues they study. For the Maine lobster fishery, it's the lobstermen who often hold important clues to understanding climate change and how best to adapt to it.

That's the thinking behind an independent study project that has Michael Tillotson '08 spending his summer on the working wharfs of Harpswell, Maine.

With a grant from the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Coastal Studies Research Fund, Tillotson is interviewing Harpswell lobstermen who have fished the same waters for decades, often the same waters their families have fished for generations. For comparison, he also is transcribing taped interviews from a conference held earlier this year at the Island Institute in Rockland, which brought together lobstermen from all over the state to share their experiences.

The stories Tillotson is hearing first-hand are similar to those from fishermen up and down the coast, from small Down East communities to Portland. They report varying success rates, but consistently remark on the recent unpredictability of the fishery.

Mike Tillotson
"We need to value what fishermen have to say," says Mike Tillotson '08.

"Lobster fishing is more hit-or-miss now," Tillotson reports. "That has led to more experimentation on the part of the lobstermen. One guy didn't move off-shore to fish last year for the first time, and he did really well."

Much of a lobster's life is related to the temperature on the ocean floor: what and how much it eats, how successfully it breeds, when and where it migrates, when it molts. Lobstermen traditionally follow the lobsters' activities, fishing inland when they are closer to shore, then follow them out to sea on a regular schedule of migration.

As the ocean temperatures fluctuate, so do the lobsters' habits. Ongoing scientific studies in the Gulf of Maine are focused on determining the extent to which these fluctuations are related to climate change.

Lobstermen can be a reticent lot. It's not only difficult to get them to talk, says Tillotson, it's difficult to convince them that what they know — what anthropologists call their "traditional ecological knowledge" — has scientific merit. "Scientists and fishermen are often at odds," he adds, "but we need to value what the fishermen have to say."

Their knowledge could be essential to understanding the lobster fishery, one of the most successful fisheries left in the United States and a critical piece of Maine's culture and economy.

Anne Henshaw, director of the Coastal Studies Center and adjunct assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, is Tillotson's independent study advisor. She said researchers are looking at two aspects of behavior related to climate change: How people and societies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change, and how they can adapt to those changes in the short and long term.

"Other anthropological studies have looked at the lobster fishery, but none has tied it to climate change," she says. "Mike's research is an important part of understanding the adaptation piece."

Tillotson will present his findings to the Island Institute at the end of the summer. His work will become part of a larger collaboration between the Island Institute and Henshaw on the issue of climate change.

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