Trap to Table

Lobster Harvesting
on the Brink of a Climate Crisis

By Brennan Kauffman

December 10, 2021

The lobstering industry is threatened by the effects of climate change, according to both lobster harvesters and climate experts. Lobsters are very sensitive to a shift in water temperature: if it becomes too warm, they will either develop shell disease, or move further north into colder waters. According to a study from Princeton University, lobsters are migrating north at a rate of 43 miles per decade. This shift threatens the future of the Maine lobster industry and future lobster harvesters like nine-year-old Kyle Dolliver (shown above with his father Rick Dolliver).

Rick starts his week placing traps around Ogunquit, Maine. It usually takes at least a few days to capture lobster, though he prefers to wait four to five days to get larger pulls. A typical day at sea starts at 8 a.m. with Rick and Kyle pulling out of Perkins Cove. They pull ten lobsters per trap on a good day, though this varies week to week. It usually takes a couple hours from when Rick and Kyle leave the Cove, to when they return to clean their boat from seawater and seaweed. When Rick isn't at sea catching lobster, he is back at his restaurant "That Place in Ogunquit," running the bar.

Buoys weigh one to two pounds, while traps can weigh from 40 to 70 pounds depending on the catch.
Pulling up the heavy traps requires strength with the lobster in the trap weighing it down further. Rick puts his back into hauling up a large catch.
Lobster traps weigh from 40-70lbs. Pulling them up out of the water requires a lot of focus and strength. Rick is training Kyle to build up his strength so he can pull traps on his own.

Rick Dolliver

"I want my son to experience all aspects of life"

Rick Dolliver is a part-time lobster harvester and the owner of That Place in Ogunquit, in Ogunquit, Maine which serves seafood, including his catch. Rick isn't a typical lobster harvester. He holds a personal license, which means he can't sell the lobster commercially. Still, lobsters are as central to his life as they are to the state so famously associated with them. He hopes to pass that on to Kyle. Rick has been training Kyle to lobster for two years, and the boy hopes to obtain a commercial lobster license when he turns 18. Kyle currently has an apprenticeship license through the state of Maine, which allows him to have ten traps out at a time. Within two years he'll be able to put out up to 50 traps.

Kyle Dolliver

"It's really fun, especally when you can keep them"

Kyle steers Rick's 24-foot lobster boat around Ogunquit, Maine while Rick searches for a lost buoy.

When Kyle is not spending time with his friends or in school, he is learning the finer points of running a business and being a lobster harvester. Rick has taught him everything from tieing claws up on a lobster, to putting bait into traps and catching fresh bait, to steering the lobster boat though the cove. Kyle has his own traps and buoys that he places out around Ogunquit.

Threats to the Future of Lobstering

Lobstering and the Law

Kyle Dolliver's bucket of lobster heading back to "That Place in Ogunquit." It's a better capture than he originally expected.
Rick holds up a one-pound lobster that he is planning on serving that night at the restaurant. Lobsters, both male and female, have be between 3 1/4" and 5" inches in length in order to be kept.
A lobster gauge is used to help lobster harvesters like Rick distinguish which lobsters can be kept.

The law prohibits catching and keeping female lobsters that are considered breeders. This helps sustain the lobster industry . If a lobster harvester sees a female lobster with eggs, they are required to check if it's been previously marked with a notch in the tail. If it hasn't, they cut a V-shaped notch to signal that it cannot be caught by other lobster harvesters.

Female lobsters have eggs attached externally to their body. A one-pound lobster can carry up to 8,000 eggs while a nine-pounder can carry up to 100,000, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA).

Threats to the Future of Lobstering

How Climate affects Lobster

As our climate quickly shifts warmer, the Maine lobster industry is struggling to adapt. As lobsters shift to cooler areas, fishing boats have to go further out into rougher water. According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the temperature of the gulf was warming at an average rate of 0.55 degrees Celsius per decade, until about 10 years ago. Since then, the warming has increased to a rate of 0.64 degress per decade. The data shown above includes ocean surface temperature anomalies over the past 99 years, with an increase starting in 1977. A subtle shift in temperature can impact lobster causing shell disease to occur more commonly. According to the NOAA, this very subtle increase in temperature can cause mass die-offs with lobster being pushed out of their habitat. Rick Dolliver has seen the shift.

"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine has increased," he says. "It has affected the migration and the health of the lobster industry and the lobsters in Maine." Over the past several years, he and his son have caught many more lobsters with shell disease.

Back at the restutaunt

In the kitchen

Dinner prep at "That place in Ogunquit" Starts around 2:30 p.m. where the prep chefs are assembling food for a busy night at the restaurant. Each person in the kitchen has their own role to keep things running smooth.

Through the double doors behind the bar is the large kitchen where lobsters are prepped fresh after being caught. Lobster prep chef Philani Buthelezi runs through his process in preparing a stuffed baked lobster which will be stored in the fridge until a customer orders it later that night.

That Place's Lobster prep chef Philani Buthelezi pauses while prepping a stuffed baked lobster for dinner that night.
Lobster prep chef Philani Buthelezi holds up a lobster after rinsing it.
Buthelezi places breadcrubs on top of the stuffed baked lobster dish.
Buthelezi then places butter on top to help keep the breadcrumbs crispy when the dish is cooking.

Buthelezi Holds up a 1.5 lb lobster dish ready to bake and serve to a customer later that night.

The lobstering industry as a whole is what Maine is famous for. What we do to combat climate change will determine where the industry stands for future generations.

Produced by students of the Media Innovation masters' program at the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2021