The Future of Nova Scotian Lobsters

Tensions between First Nation lobstermen and Nova Scotia’s commercial fishing boiled over in recent weeks, with reports of violence and property destruction in an at times racially charged collision. This battle of social and economic forces will only be magnified should anthropogenic climate change radically alter the cold waters where the lucrative crustaceans thrive.

At its core, according to one report, is the recent creation of a Sipekne’ katik (Mi’kmaw) First Nation fishery and plan to collect lobsters outside Canada’s official harvesting period. Moreover, commercial opponents of the Indigenous lobstering claim that such growth will directly harm local, non-Indigenous lobstermen whose licenses cost approximately $800,000 each. First Nation lobstermen have consistently reported threats and  property destruction, including vandalism of lobster pots, dumping of Indigenously caught lobster, and warehouse arson. And the dispute between native and local fishing enterprises is sharpened by certain allegations that racism is ultimately at root. With echoes of European colonization reverberating in 21st-century fishing disputes, there remains a further threat to all resource harvesters off Nova Scotia’s western tip – climate change. Given several immediate dangers to lobsters and other shellfish in the region, human impacts on the marine environment could permanently alter the fishing environment in not just Nova Scotia but throughout the North Atlantic.

At the eastern edge of the Gulf of Maine and above the Scotia Shelf, Nova Scotia is surrounded by crustacean harvesting grounds. It is estimated Canada’s annual lobstering industry is worth $1 billion, with significant lobster landings coming from the western edge of Nova Scotia, the area at the heart of the First Nation and commercial fishing dispute. Per the Nova Scotia government, ocean warming is one of climate change leading threats to marine life. While there are many climate-related threats to several marine species, the impact on lobsters is particularly significant when it comes to warming. Late last year, the CBC reported that Canadian fishery officials remained optimistic regarding the Nova Scotian lobster health, saying, “Some of the climate projections suggest that it may not have a big impact over the next number of years on adult lobsters.” While optimistic, however, the experts also noted, “There is still uncertainty of course around the young lobsters and egg production. But for the offshore adult lobsters, we’re feeling like climate impacts in terms of temperature particularly aren’t going to be a major negative driver.” But even this somewhat positive outlook is tempered by broader conditions at work in the region.

In September 2019, scientists studying temperature in the Canadian Atlantic wrote that increases “above an optimal thermal range can reduce lobster survival, growth, and reproduction as a result of stress, decreased recruitment, and increased disease.” The report’s authors noted that lobsters in the Gulf of Maine increased while those in southern New England waters declined. Warming throughout the water column help to explain this, with warming waters to the south directly impacted lobster populations, as species decline and northern movement continues. Likewise, a study of temperature impacts on North Atlantic lobsters found “thermal acclimation and thermal change” impact the crustacean’s “properties of the neural circuits driving lobster ventilation and cardiac activity.” While rapid temperature changes are regular occurrences in oceanic environments, the long-term thermal impacts on lobsters are concerning. In addition to direct physiological impacts on lobsters, their primary food source, zooplankton, is also negatively affected b oceanic temperature increases.

According to NOAA, “Lobster landings have been trending upward in recent decades, and many small rural communities in Atlantic Canada rely heavily on lobster for their economic well-being.” These increased landings are truly lucrative for fishing enterprises around Novia Scotia. The Canadian government’s most recent landing values show Nova Scotia brought in over $77 million in lobsters, leading the five Canadian Atlantic fishing regions. Managing the lucrative Atlantic “commons” was brought into sharp focus in the 1990s when the North Atlantic cod industry suffered a major overfishing collapse. Until management regulations and cooperative agreements were made, cod stocks in the northwestern Atlantic suffered. However, cod’s decline led to the rise of the lobster. As a Carleton University report noted, “cod used to feed on juvenile crab and lobster – species considered to form the base of marine food chains in a large part of the world’s oceans.” Until the decline of the cod in Canadian waters, lobsters were not a significant driver of the country’s Atlantic fishing economy, but with cod’s decline, lobster found itself thriving, both in numbers and due to increased consumer demand.

While commercial fishermen disputes with First Nation lobstermen capture headlines today, tomorrow’s news on Nova Scotia’s fisheries may well focus on tensions stoked by climate change. By finding common links across generations, geography, economics and social groups, there may be an opportunity to unite such opposing fishers. Fishing traditions in Atlantic Canada date back some 5,000 years, well before the first Europeans. However, as time and technology rolled forward, the commercialization of the waters around Nova Scotia altered the relationships between First Nations, Europeans and the sea. This ever-changing relationship between humans and the marine ecosystem requires renegotiations, and the realization there may be many disputes to come over the sea’s resources. Still, without equitable social and environmental awareness, fishing may not have a future.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Oct. 29, 2020.


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