Consider the Lobster (Again)

Climate change puts RI lobsters in hot water

by Peder Schaefer

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published May 1, 2020

Peter Brodeur was only a few miles away from his home on the Narrow River in Narragansett, a seaside community in southern Rhode Island, when he first smelled oil. He was returning home from a trip to Maine, where he had been checking out a new lobster boat. It was 1996, and the lobster industry was booming in Rhode Island. Lobstermen were catching the red crustaceans at an all-time high, and Peter was making a bet that his boat would pay for itself, as long as his traps stayed full. 

At first, he thought the smell was coming from his new diesel truck, but as he sped down toward the water, the stench of oil became stronger. “That southeast breeze brought the smell of that oil spill from that barge all the way up to where I was living,” Peter told the College Hill Independent. “The phone was ringing, I got on the phone. Everyone said there was an accident.” 

It was January 19, 1996—a moment of crisis for RI lobsters.

Off the coast of southern Rhode Island, a few hours before Peter smelled oil, the tugboat Scandia was plowing through 20-foot waves and gale force winds. Behind her, the Scandia pulled a barge, the North Cape, carrying 94,000 barrels of #2 heating oil due for Providence. The winter storm came quickly and unexpectedly out of the south. According to Peter, the wind “took the ocean and turned it into root beer.” The Coast Guard broadcast gale warnings up and down the East Coast, one level below hurricane. 

But for the Scandia and its precious oil cargo, it was too late. 

At 1:20 PM, a fire began in the engine room of the tug, later attributed to lackluster maintenance by the owners. Distress calls went out, and the entire crew of the Scandia abandoned ship. Six men dove into the roiling seas and were later saved by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, but that left the unmanned barge, the North Cape, floating helplessly in the vicious winter storm. Two members of the Scandia’s crew bravely volunteered to go back on the barge, to try and set off the sea anchor that could keep the North Cape from grounding, but the anchor was tied down, and waves and fog washed over the deck, making it impossible to release. The men were saved by the Coast Guard, one jumping onto a rescue ship, the other lifted off the barge early the next morning by a helicopter.

At 6:00 PM, the unmanned barge hit Nebraska Shoal, a jutting reef only a few miles from Point Judith, home of the largest fishing port in Rhode Island. Over the next few days, more than 800,000 gallons of oil broke free of the North Cape’s ripped hull, dispersed deep underwater by the crashing waves. Emergency workers watched helplessly from the beach. The winter storm was too powerful to mount a containment operation.

The day after the spill Peter went to haul a string of lobster pots he kept inside the harbor refuge at Point Judith, only a few miles from the accident. Each pot was full to the brim with baby lobsters, much too small to keep. It was weird. Traps don’t catch small lobsters, as release vents on either side are meant to allow the youngsters to escape. “I’ve never seen that before or after in my career,” Peter told the Independent. “Those juvenile lobsters would normally never be in the traps.” He went out with a scientist the next day, and, with a permit from the state, began hauling up all the traps around the oil spill. Every trap was full of baby lobsters. It was inexplicable. “That one barge changed lobstering around here dramatically,” Peter told the Independent. “Lobstering was good before that. After, it was never quite the same.” 

    Over the next few days, as the winter storm continued to pound the beach, the sea lifted lobsters from the ocean bottom and threw them onto the shore, dead, their gills full of oil. Locals were confused why so many lobsters—thousands, maybe millions—covered the beach. They had never seen that kind of devastation before. Scientists later estimated the spill killed nine million lobsters, but lobstermen like Peter claim the numbers were much higher than that, and that the oil companies persuaded the scientists to fudge the numbers. 

The Providence Journal filled pages and pages with coverage of the oil spill and its aftermath, but the story not being told by the Journal, and most media, was the one lurking under the surface—global warming. The tale of the catastrophic decline of the lobster fishery in Rhode Island doesn’t begin or end with the 1996 oil spill. For decades, fossil fuels have traveled past Moonstone Beach peacefully, to burn in homes, cars, and power plants, emitting greenhouse gases that have warmed our planet. The spill was only the most visible symptom of an illness that has been impacting Rhode Island lobsters for decades: a warming ocean due to human-induced global warming, led by fossil fuel companies that have put profits above climate. It’s those warming waters—say scientists, government officials, and lobstermen—that have really doomed Rhode Island lobsters, and the working-class lobster industry, in the end. 




Peter Brodeur grew up in the Oakland Beach neighborhood of Warwick, near the now-defunct Rocky Point amusement park. “I didn’t particularly care for school,” Peter, now 74, told the Independent. “I more or less gravitated towards the beach, and I loved to go down along the beach and dig clams.” A love of the water, born in the muddy tidal flats of the Narragansett Bay, has shaped Peter throughout his life. 

A few years after high school, Peter joined the Navy, and after finishing his service in November of 1968, he returned home to Rhode Island. He got married and, after a few years living in Providence, was soon back out on the water, fishing for lobster. “In 1979 when I started, I bought an old Novi boat, and you could kind of go out, close your eyes, and as long as you didn’t aim the nose of the boat towards the land, you could set your lobster pots and be back in a few days and have lobsters,” said Peter. “In fact, back then you could catch 1,000 pounds [of lobster] a day.” 

Over the years, Peter bought larger and larger boats and more and more pots. The going was good. There was little government regulation, he made enough to support his family, and there was a sense of camaraderie and excitement that came with fishing. For Peter, lobstering was a way to leave behind the troubles of the mainland—to make for bluer, cleaner, simpler waters, where one could spot whales, jellyfish, and schools of fish speeding by the side of the boat. For Peter, lobstering wasn’t a job, but a vocation, a way of life. 

In 2020, however, it’s nearly impossible to make a living fishing only for lobsters in Rhode Island. Narragansett Bay, which was once full of lobsters, is now mostly empty. “Nowadays, a good day is that you catch 300 pounds,” Peter told the Independent. Many lobstermen now set up their traps for other species, like crab or whelks, or do other types of fishing during off months. Fishermen who fish only lobster find themselves pushed further and further offshore, setting traps in deeper and cooler water. Over the course of one lifetime—within a span of 40 years—a thriving industry has become a struggling one, with a once lucrative fishery now on the brink of collapse.




“No one knows how long a lobster can live,” said Rick Wahle, a professor in the School of Marine Science at the University of Maine. Wahle has been researching lobsters for decades, including as a postdoc in stints at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, when he studied lobster populations in Rhode Island. Since then, he’s come up with techniques to better survey lobster populations, helping to track changes in the fishery up and down the East Coast. 

The American Lobster, Homarus americanus, if left undisturbed, can grow up to 25 inches in total length and over 40 pounds. Lobsters begin life, however, much smaller, as one of thousands of tiny eggs on the tail of a female. The fertilized eggs, once they hatch, go through three planktonic larval stages in the water column before finally transitioning into bottom dwellers. Here, among the dark nooks and crannies at the bottom of the ocean is where a young lobster will spend the beginning of its life molting, feeding, and growing—as long as they don’t pick up a disease or find themselves on a dinner plate in Boston or New York. 

Lobsters don’t thrive everywhere, however; temperature is important. In waters above 68 degrees Fahrenheit, lobsters begin to struggle: tissue growth slows, the immune system stops working, and the risk of potentially lethal shell disease increases. Shell disease kills lobsters slowly, preventing them from molting, causing secondary infection, and in extreme cases, rotting away the entire shell, leading to death. “You can think of lobsters having this optimal temperature they want to live at,” Wahle told the Independent. “You get much above that, and they start to suffer physiologically…Just as the demand for oxygen is increasing, the capacity for water to hold oxygen is decreasing, creating a kind of double-edged sword.” Wahle explained that as the water temperature increases, the metabolic demand for oxygen in lobsters also increases, but at the same time the carrying capacity of water to hold oxygen decreases, putting lobsters in a tough spot.  

Water that is too cold also poses problems. Below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, larval development stops. There’s a “temperature envelope,” between 50 and 65 degrees, that is ideal for lobsters. 

“You can think of New England as straddling the two sides of the lobster comfort zone,” said Wahle. “Southern New England has been on the warmer end of that comfort zone, whereas eastern Maine and the Bay of Fundy have been on the cold side of that comfort zone. As the climate has been warming, the southern end has seen an increasing number of extremely warm summers, and that’s been detrimental, whereas the same warming process in the northern part of the range has had a positive effect, bringing lobsters into that goldilocks zone.” 

Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay were once lobster heaven. The 1980s and late 1990s saw some of the highest numbers of lobsters caught in traps on record in Rhode Island, even in the years directly after the North Cape oil spill. But as waters warmed after decades of human-induced climate change, lobsters began to struggle. Recruitment, or the settlement of new baby lobsters, slowed, and lobstermen began to catch less. 




To understand the scope of changes to the lobster fishery, it’s important to survey the lobster population. In the 1990s scientists began to develop survey techniques to count the number of young lobsters, a good way to track the future health of the species in a specific area. Lobsters don’t have growth rings, making it almost impossible to calculate the age of a lobster from its size. Instead, the best way to measure the population is by measuring the number of young-of-the-year lobsters—the tiny, cricket-length lobster babies that have fallen to the sea floor after a month of drifting along as larvae in ocean currents. 

“We can use that pulse as an early warning system for trends in the fishery,” said Wahle. “It’s sort of like following kindergarteners to eighth grade…The pulse of baby lobsters coming every year is a good signal of the lobster fishery five, six, or seven years later.”

Measuring the numbers of young-of-the-year lobsters, however, is difficult. They’re tiny, the length of half a pinkie finger, with itsy-bitsy little claws. Wahle came up with the idea of doing suction sampling—essentially using a giant underwater vacuum cleaner to suck up all the organisms in a particular section, a quadrat, of the sea floor. Suction sampling is done by divers in shallow waters at the end of the settlement season, sometime in late August in Rhode Island. For deeper waters where divers can’t reach, scientists measure young-of-the-year lobster populations using metal cages filled with cobbles, creating an artificial lobster habitat. They pull up the cages, much like a lobster pot without bait, and measure all the lobsters they find inside. Together, the data allows scientists to paint a picture of how well the lobsters are reproducing and what the population could look like in the future. 

In Rhode Island, the future does not look bright. A study done in 2015 by Wahle, DEM scientists, and RI lobstermen compared data on young-of-year lobsters collected in 1990 with data collected in 2011 and 2012. The results were clear: the number of young-of-year lobsters in Rhode Island is falling, with the remaining juvenile populations found further out to sea, in deeper and cooler waters. The study shows a direct correlation between warmer waters in the upper and middle Narragansett Bay and the fall of baby lobster populations. Temperatures in Narragansett Bay have been rising by half a degree per decade since the 1970s. Those warmer waters have, over time, pushed lobsters out of the bay.

“Since the late 1990s and 2000s we’ve seen a precipitous decline in the Southern New England lobster stock,” Dr. Conor McManus, a deputy chief and researcher at the Rhode Island Division of Marine Fisheries, told the Independent. The reality that warmer waters are hurting lobsters creates difficulties for sustaining fisheries in Rhode Island. Government regulations can only control the harvest side of the fishery by regulating the number of lobsters that fishermen are catching. It’s tough for little Rhode Island alone to control the slew of environmental changes, principally warming ocean waters, that are dooming the fishery. The executive order signed by Governor Gina Raimondo in 2019 mandating that the state move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 only goes so far in combating the interconnected, capital-driven, global crisis that is climate change. “We’re tasked with trying to rebuild a species in a situation where commercial harvest is not the driving force,” said McManus. “We can’t drop ice packs in the ocean, and there’s no cure to shell disease that we know…There’s no management tool to battle some of these environmental impacts.” 

That’s not to say lobstermen haven't tried management techniques. After the 1996 Cape North oil spill, the company that owned the tug and barge, Eklof Marine Corp., was found liable for the spill in court and was mandated by federal law to help restore local fisheries. Eklof spent millions of dollars on a lobster population restoration project that sought to return lobsters numbers to what they were before the oil spill. Over 300,000 female lobsters that could bear eggs were bought from distributors and thrown back into Rhode Island waters to strengthen the breeding stock. Lobstermen also worked with the state to develop a v-notching program, a system of marking lobsters caught bearing eggs that allows the breeding stock to grow. V-notching has been practiced for decades in Maine and is often cited as a successful way to continue growing the lobster population.

“But v-notching didn’t seem to help at all,” Peter told the Independent. “There was no uptick in the lobstering after that, even eight years down the line, when the eggs should reach maturity.” Instead, Peter said, the population has continued to diminish, with the remaining concentrations of lobsters far offshore. 

Despite the efforts of lobstermen, fisheries managers, and scientists, lobster populations in Rhode Island continue to decline because of warming water caused by emissions of greenhouse gases. “There’s no silver bullet here,” Wahle told the Independent. “You can stave things off for a while, you can capitalize off positive effects, but at the end of the day, the climate is changing and it’s becoming increasingly inhospitable to lobster. We’re not entirely in the driver's seat here from a management perspective.” 




Lobstermen, scientists, and fisheries managers may not be in the driver’s seat, but the fossil fuel companies that have spent decades polluting our planet certainly are. By pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, despite being aware of the damage they were causing, companies like ExxonMobil and Shell have created the environmental catastrophe that has hurt working-class folks, like lobstermen, who make a living off the sea. In 1978 James F. Black, a senior scientist at ExxonMobil, made a presentation to corporate management in which he said “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels…Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” Similar kinds of internal research were done at Shell. Fossil fuel companies have been aware of the damage their products can cause for decades, yet have chosen to lie, deflect, and bribe to keep their businesses afloat. 

The effects of global warming can sometimes feel diffuse and hidden, but less so for those who are directly impacted, like the lobstermen. In the years after the North Cape oil spill, money from the settlement went toward an effort to replenish the lobsters, but the species was already declining because of other, more structural, less easily seen environmental changes. 

For lobstermen, global warming is not a matter of climate justice or saving polar bears, it’s a matter of job security. A smart policy to combat global warming and hold fossil fuel companies accountable is not about climate change in the abstract—it’s a way to keep good jobs in Rhode Island.

Peter said if he were a young man today, he wouldn’t want to go into lobstering, but for now he keeps hauling pots, catching lobsters, and selling them to a curious public right off the back of his boat. 

“It’s not a real job,” said Peter when asked what lobstering meant to him. “A lot of people say if you like what you do, it doesn’t seem like a job. Well, that’s the way I feel about it, so that’s why I still do it. The bait is dirty, smelly, the job is tedious, but you see an awful lot. You may see different fish go by, or dolphins may follow you home, jumping around the boat. The whole thing is interesting to me, and if I seem emotional about it, I am. That’s why I do what I do.” 


Peder Schaefer ’22 thinks baby lobsters are pretty cute.