If something is to good to be true, it usually is. That may also be the case for lobstermen working in the Gulf of Maine.
An abundance of succulent lobsters have single-handedly given the community in the area a remarkable financial boost over the past 30 years. The lobster population increase is indeed so great that it has steadily gone up despite an equal increase in lobster traps.
But the devil is lurking in the details of this lucrative income. Once a haven for a number of food species, the gulf is today a highly simplified ecosystem dominated by lobsters. This renders the gulf fragile for diseases with the dangerous consequence of leaving the Maine fishing community in a utterly desperate situation.
Putting all the eggs in one basket?
In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology (request publication - please include article title in subject line), centre researchers Carl Folke and Per Olsson have together with a multidisciplinary team of experts on marine resources looked at the developments of the Maine lobster fishery.
What they found was disturbing: Because the lobstermen, their communities and indeed the entire state economy have grown so dependent on lobster fishing, they are caught in what Folke and his colleagues call a guilded trap. This is where short-term economic opportunities outweigh concerns over associated social and ecological risks.
The reason for this is simple: lobsters now provide 80 percent of Maine's seafood income. If anything damages the lobster species (something which indeed has happened in the late 1990s in southern New England, where diseases and stresses resulted in more than 70 percent decline in lobster abundance), a collapse in Maine would have huge socio-economic consequences.
Many lobster fishers operate in heavy debt because they and their bankers expect continued success in lobster landings, as it has over the past 30 years.
Restore diversity, please
The authors of the article are calling for new steps to restore diversity in the gulf, both financially as well as ecologically.
"Although the fishery is widely regarded as a model for sustainable management, the economic diversity of the fisheries is the lowest in 50 years. Younger fishermen are less cautious of the potential consequences to this lobster monoculture compared to older fishers who have first-hand experience of previous fisheries decline," says Carl Folke. He is also science director at Stockholm Resilience Centre.
"From an ecological point of view, the high density of lobsters in Maine may also increase their susceptibility to disease, leading to an unprecendented decrease in abundance," Folke warns.
A rethink of governance also needed
The resilience of the lobster industry is low in part because the fishery has been overcapitalised and in part because demographics are changing and the price of homes and taxes are rising.
"Steering away from this potential social-ecological tipping point and escaping the gilded trap will require new and improved governance structures that can maintain and restore ecological functions at multiple scales," says co-author Per Olsson.
One example of innovative governance is co-managed fisheries where local, well-established and successful fishers together with elected officials make collective decisions that can boost both biological conservation as well as diversified economic opportunities.
This means deploying relatively few traps per fisher but doing so only during the winter. During the summer, incomes are diversified by increased focus on summer tourism.
"We believe stakeholders in Maine need to develop a shared vision of the future and promote leaders who can navigate complex social-ecological systems. To overcome resistance to change and act before a crisis happens. Only this way can Maine maximise ecosystem resilience and minimise any risks for climate-change-triggered diseases that can bring the Gulf of Maine to its knees," Folke and his colleagues conclude.
Source: R. S. Steneck, T. P. Hughes, J. E. Cinner, W. N. Adger, S. N. Arnold, F. Berkes, S. A. Boudreau, K. Brown, C.Folke, L. Gunderson, P. Olsson, M. Scheffer, E. Stephenson, B. Walker, J. Wilson, B. Worm. (2011), Creation of a Gilded Trap by the High Economic Value of the Maine Lobster Fishery. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01717.x
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