PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - Will Maine have another problem lobster season next year?
The country's leading lobster scientists are in Maine this week to find the answers to that and many other questions about the state's most valuable seafood.
Scientists and fishermen agree the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine is large and healthy right now.
But scientists say they worry that could change.
They say lobster populations in southern New England, especially in Long Island Sound, have dropped dramatically, apparently because of disease, pollution and rising ocean temperatures.
Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher says Maine's ocean temperatures have definitely been rising, but not as high as those to the south. And he says the shell disease that hit lobsters in Long Island Sound is only minimally present here. The researchers say they aren't worried right now, but say the rising temperatures could be causing other changes to lobster habits, and those could affect populations and the state's lobster harvest.
That is apparently what happened earlier this year, then the annual "shed" by lobsters began six weeks earlier than normal, long before the marketplace was ready to handle the soft shell lobsters.
The size of the catch of so-called shedders was also a surprise, and the result has been depressed prices for fishermen for most of the season. That, in turn, has put added economic stress on the industry.
Could it happen again next year?
Scientists and fishermen admit they don't know, and say it most likely depends on the weather.
Last winter was unusually warm and there was little snow. As a result, the usual spring snowmelt and runoff of cold water into rivers and the ocean was essentially non-existent. That, in turn, allowed ocean temperatures to rise more quickly than usual, and become warmer than normal. Scientists believe that accelerated the shedding of lobster's shells, which led to the supply and price problems.
A "normal winter", said Keliher, would be a good thing. "We're hoping for big snowstorms, hoping the ski areas do well this year and that overall will translate into some colder water."