ELLSWORTH — The
specter of lobster shell disease has loomed
large over Maine’s lobster fishery for the past
two years. The quick spread of the
shell-destroying ailment in southern New England
since the late 1990s has been one more source of
worry for Maine’s lobstermen.
state’s fishery has been in the midst of an
undeniable boom since the mid-1990s.
are generally pleased with the hand they’ve been
dealt, they know their luck could change.
has amounted to a string of bad luck for
Massachusetts and Rhode Island lobstermen.
However, Maine waters have yielded relatively
few infected lobsters in the last few years.
Lobster Biologist Carl Wilson has maintained a
guardedly optimistic outlook since shell disease
became a widely discussed issue around 2002.
That optimism is supported by the shell disease
findings for 2004. In spite of increased
vigilance on the part of Maine lobstermen, only
32 infected lobsters were found during sea
sampling last year — down from 44 reported cases
purposes, the numbers for either year are
negligible. Less that 0.1 percent of the total
population, Wilson said. That doesn’t mean
lobstermen of scientists are becoming complacent
about the ailment.
general sort of watchfulness,” Wilson said of
the lobstermen out on the water tending their
gear every day. Back in the laboratory the daily
grind of science work continues.
Charles O’Kelley, who presented some of his work
at the 2004 Maine Fishermen’s Forum, is still
pursuing the single-celled organisms that live
on diseased shells.
At the forum,
O’Kelley said he had isolated more than 200
cultures of amoebae, zooflagellates and diatoms
from healthy and diseased
Maine lobsters. Narrowing any
cause down from such a wide field is a challenge
O’Kelley is still working on.
There’s also a
riddle of the disease to be solved.
there isn’t an understanding of whether the
lobster is weakened by something else, which
than allows the bacteria and other organisms to
thrive on the shell, or whether the actual
infestation on the shell weakens the lobster.
Whatever the case, he reminded that the symptoms
recognized as shell disease can be found in
healthy lobster populations. Even in last
summer’s survey, diseased shells were seen from
Kittery to Eastport with no particular “hot
spots,” Wilson said.
reports from other states, 80 percent of those
infected were female, Wilson said. In addition,
most were more than 1˝ pounds. He said that all
makes sense, because older females are more
likely to delay shedding their shells. One way
lobsters can be rid of the disease is to shed
their way out of infected shells.
Wilson said what
he’s been hearing from Massachusetts and Rhode
Island that things are looking up for their
hard-hit lobster fisheries.
Wilson said one
of the factors researchers are looking at is
seawater temperature in the region. He said the
last two summers have seen lower temperatures
than usual off much of the Maine coast.
“The last two
years the molt has been delayed,” he said. But
to the question of whether the temperatures are
normal or not he asked rhetorically, “what is
That’s not a bad
question for a fishery that has fluctuated
dramatically in recent decades along the length
of the New England coast.
executive director of the Maine Lobsterman’s
Association confirmed that there was been a drop
in shell disease reports in 2004. In the
interest of keeping lobstermen informed and
vigilant she’ organizing a lobster health
symposium at the 2005 Maine Fishermen’s Forum in
she’d have researchers from southern New England
states on hand to tell where their
investigations of shell disease and the Long
Island Sound lobster die-off have led them.