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Sea Grant awards $2 million to advance understanding of American lobster, support industry

Sea Grant announced new funding today for research aimed at understanding physical and chemical changes affecting American lobster (Homarus americanus) in the Gulf of Maine as well as a regional lobster extension program. Collectively, the research projects and regional extension program comprise the Sea Grant American Lobster Initiative.

Research to Understand Changes Affecting American Lobster

The seven research projects were chosen through a competitive processes that included review by subject matter experts. The research competition solicited proposals aimed at addressing one or more of the following priorities: 

1. Increased understanding of life history parameters, including but not limited to, migration, growth, and maturity; 

2. Larval studies and early biology; 

3. Spatial distribution; and 

4. Socio-economic lessons learned from Southern New England as they pertain to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. 


Regional Extension Program 

In addition to new baseline research, Sea Grant is launching a regional lobster extension program designed to work with communities to link lobster research with the industry, resource managers, and other stakeholders across the region, who can both use the results and inform additional studies and decisions. 


While scientific expertise on American lobster may be broadly distributed geographically, the stakeholders that can benefit from that research are concentrated in the northeast region. The newly created regional lobster extension program will ensure that industry and management stakeholders across the northeast region benefit from the research conducted to support American lobster and its fishery. Additionally, the extension program informs research and management decisions by amplifying the voices of stakeholders and understanding needs, emerging trends, and other information gained only by living the life of the lobster industry. 


The Sea Grant Northeast Regional Lobster Extension Program is a regionally coordinated American lobster extension program which will complement and enhance the National Sea Grant American Lobster Research Initiative and address Sea Grant goals related to the national focus areas, Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture and Environmental Literacy and Workforce Development. Maine Sea Grant will provide leadership and overall coordination for the effort, and the New Hampshire, MIT, Woods Hole, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York Sea Grant programs will lead locally relevant components that contribute to the regional effort. These programs will each lead extension activities, to both serve local needs and contribute to the collective goal and objectives of the Regional Lobster Extension Program.  


The Future of American Lobster

The American lobster (Homarus americanus) is one of the most iconic modern American fisheries, and total U.S. landings of lobster have steadily increased over the past 35 years. Today, the landing value of the American lobster fishery is estimated at about $666.7 million, one of the largest and most valuable fisheries on the Atlantic coast. In a 2016 report, the American lobster was the most valuable species landed in the nation.

The state of Maine, where more than 80 percent of lobsters harvested in the U.S. were landed in 2016, reported an 18 percent drop in catch volume in 2017 followed by an upswing in 2018. The recruitment failure experienced in southern New England and its subsequent impacts on the lobster fishery have raised concerns that a similar failure could occur in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Banks after years of record harvests. Understanding the factors leading to recruitment failures and the socioeconomic implications are critical to preserving the American lobster fishery.

As the research projects and extension program are conducted, the National Sea Grant Office will play a coordination role to strengthen the connections between science, management and stakeholders. 


Selected Research Projects to Advance Understanding of American Lobster

Bridging the ‘Great Disconnect’: Linking the Gulf of Maine pelagic food web to lobster recruitment dynamics

University of Maine, PI Wahle

The project represents an interdisciplinary collaboration to examine the paradoxical disconnect between historic highs in Gulf of Maine (GoM) lobster egg production and lows in young-of-year recruitment. The authors evaluate the hypothesis that changes in the abundance and distribution of zooplankton prey may profoundly impact recruitment success (Carloni et al. 2018). The project therefore addresses aspects of National Sea Grant’s top three priorities for Lobster Research: life history; larval studies; and spatial distribution within the GoM and Georges Bank. The authors have identified a previously undocumented correlation between recent declines in components of the larger planktonic (copepod) assemblage and declining trends in the young-of-year (YoY) recruitment of the American lobster. The marked disconnect between record breaking lobster spawner abundance and low recruitment in the GoM suggests decreased survival of the planktonic larval stages. The proposed project aims to investigate the mechanism underlying diminished recruitment success by capitalizing on an existing long-term (>30 year) data set augmented by targeted high resolution field sampling, novel molecular diet analysis and laboratory experiments, enabling the researchers to move beyond correlative analyses to clarify the American lobster’s link to the pelagic food web.


Fish Less, Earn More: Assessing Maximum Economic Yield Effort levels in Gulf of Maine’s Lobster Fishery, Incorporating Lessons Learned from Southern New England, Canada and Australia

Gulf of Maine Research Institute, PI Dayton

Severe declines in lobster fisheries have occurred in Southern New England (SNE) in 2010 and Australia (AUS) in 2009. What lessons can we learn from their experiences? What management adaptations were considered or acted upon? How can we better prepare the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery to prevent a significant economic contraction in the face of expected declines in landings and increases in operating costs? These questions must be informed through not only biological assessment of the population and health of the stock, but also through socio-economic analysis aimed at maximizing economic yield.  The authors will look to their existing network of lobster industry members for updates, and consult with fisheries managers in other regions for lessons learned. These interviews will provide a basis for assigning a range of assumptions to be tested. The authors will derive and then assess the effects of moving to maximum economic yield effort levels in the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery given the predicted future state of the fishery, so as to inform management options in the fishery.


Growth in large offshore lobsters: addressing a critical data gap in the US Lobster Stock Assessment

Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, PI Pugh

American lobster stocks in U.S. waters are assessed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) using a length-based assessment model. This model relies heavily upon a growth matrix that informs the model when to transition lobsters from one size bin to the next over the course of modeled time steps. Unfortunately, growth is a data-poor element of lobster life history and has been identified as a data research recommendation by the ASMFC lobster stock assessment committee in the past two stock assessments (ASMFC 2009, 2015), and likely will be again in the 2020 assessment (per ASMFC committee members Pugh and Shank). Gaps in relevant growth data, particularly for larger animals, persist and continue to introduce substantial uncertainty into the assessment. The Gulf of Maine / Georges Bank (GOMGB) lobster stock has experienced unprecedented abundance increases in recent years, including increases in the abundance of large lobsters (> 100 mm carapace length (CL)). The GOMGB stock accounted for 97% of all U.S. lobster landings in 2017 (ASMFC unpublished data), and the commercial industry dependent on this resource is a vital component of the economies for many New England coastal communities. The ability of the stock assessment to accurately assess the status and trajectory of this resource is critical to its sustainable management. Therefore, this study will address the lack of sufficient growth information, which is crucial to the future success of the stock assessment process.


Projecting Climate-related Shifts in American Lobster Habitat and Connectivity: Integrated Modeling to Inform Sustainable Management

University of Maine, PI Brady

Ocean warming can drive poleward shifts of commercially important species with potentially significant economic impacts. Nowhere are those impacts greater than in the Gulf of Maine where North America’s most valuable marine species, the American lobster (Homarus americanus), has thrived for decades. However, concerns are growing as monitored shallow water young-of-year lobsters decline and landings shift to the northeast that the regional maritime economies will suffer. The authors focus on the potential effects of warming on the early life history of the American lobster by asking: How will climate-induced shifts in larval development time and settlement habitat affect lobster population connectivity? A necessary corollary to this question is how potentially shortened development time and dispersal would affect local retention and recruitment. This proposal presents a 2-year participatory modeling collaboration of investigators at the University of Maine, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, The Lobster Research Collaborative (as organized by the Maine Department of Marine Resource), and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Researchers will use an existing Statistical Distribution Model (SDM) to project the spatio-temporal distribution of spawners and will link the output to a Larval Transport Model (LTM). They propose to update fundamental work by co-PIs Xue and Incze that simulated lobster larval transport for the years 2002-2004, some of the coldest years in the recent record. Since that time, the three warmest years on record (2012, 2016, and 2018) have occurred and have the potential to significantly affect larval development time as well as circulation in the region. Finally, the authors will emphasize a participatory approach to developing fundamental questions relevant to management (Squires and Renn 2011). Through the PIs’ work with the Maine Department of Marine Resources Lobster Research Collaborative, they will build a flexible modeling system capable of addressing the fundamental questions being asked by lobstermen and the agency regarding larval transport and supply.


Reproduction in an era of rapid environmental change: the effect of multiple stressors on reproductive success, embryogenesis, and emerging larvae of the American lobster

Virginia Institute of Marine Science, PI Rivest

Against a backdrop of rapid environmental change, the authors want to understand how multiple stressors (rising temperature and ocean acidification) affect the reproductive success of the American lobster in the Gulf of Maine (GoM). They propose an ambitious project to examine how changes in temperature and ocean acidification (OA) affect the reproductive care, fecundity, and natality of the American lobster, Homarus americanus, and how these stressors interact to affect embryo development and the physiology of early life stages of the lobster. The American lobster supports the region’s most economically important fishery and this research is highly relevant to NOAA’s Next Generation Strategic Plan for sustaining healthy fisheries (NOAA, 2010). The project also supports a component of the National Marine Fisheries Service Strategic Plan by addressing goals related to rebuilding over-fished marine fisheries, maintaining currently productive fisheries, and integrating conservation of protected species and fisheries management. The findings of this research can be used to improve estimates of the effects of multiple stressors on natural systems in the GoM and provide baselines for representative physiological markers for future work.


Resilience, adaptation, and transformation in lobster fishing communities

Gulf of Maine Research Institute, PI Mills

The experiences of Southern New England fishing communities during the decline of American lobster populations in the late 1990s can offer important lessons for lobstermen and communities in the Gulf of Maine, where lobster is currently thriving but may be on the precipice of temperature-associated declines. The authors hypothesize that there are three major categories of outcomes for fishermen and communities responding to change: (1) resilience, demonstrated by communities in which fisheries persist in a similar state pre- and post-disruption; (2) adaptation, demonstrated by communities in which fishing persists but the types of fisheries change substantially; and (3) transformation, demonstrated by communities that transition out of fisheries. The authors also posit that actions and characteristics at individual (i.e., fisherman or vessel) and community scales both shape responses and outcomes. Through this study, the researchers will draw on quantitative fishery-dependent data and insights gained from qualitative case studies to understand the consequences of a major downturn in Southern New England lobster fisheries and to evaluate how lessons from this experience may be applicable to lobstermen and communities in the Gulf of Maine. These findings will be relevant for efforts to plan for resilience and adaptation in culturally, socially, and economically important fishing communities.


The potential influence of increased water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine on the distribution of female American lobsters and the impacts of these distribution shifts on larval recruitment

Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, PI Goldstein

Abundance estimates of American lobster (Homarus americanus) are currently at an all-time high in the Gulf of Maine (GoM), but at all-time lows in Southern New England (SNE; ASMFC 2015). As SNE water temperatures have warmed over the past 15 years, the lobsters have moved to deeper, cooler offshore waters and this, along with associated problems such as shell disease, is correlated with low levels of recruitment to inshore nursery grounds (Glenn et al. 2011, ASMFC 2015). This same trend now appears to be underway in the GoM. This water mass is warming at an alarming rate (Nye 2010, Mills et al. 2013, Pershing et al. 2015, LeBris et al. 2018), and lobster recruitment to inshore nursery grounds has been below median levels throughout much of the GoM since 2012 (ASMFC 2015, Carloni et al. 2018). American lobster comprise the most valuable single-species fishery in the U.S. (NMFS 2018), and persistent low levels of recruitment in the region have created concern over the future sustainability of this resource. The overall goal of this research is to better understand the impacts of warming GoM waters on the movements of sexually mature female lobsters, and the fate of their larvae that recruit into the fishery. This information will help predict the impacts of a changing climate on the future of this critically valuable marine resource.


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