Lobster shell disease “is a naturally occurring phenomenon,” says Terry Stockwell, liaison between lobster fishermen and the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). It’s been found over the years in traps and lobster tidal pounds from New Jersey to Nova Scotia. The problem, though, is that in the past three years, the incidence of shell-diseased lobster has risen in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts from the occasional animal to, in some places, as much as 60 percent of the catch. Maine lobstermen, aware of what has happened to their fellow lobstermen to the south, are understandably worried that the disease may be working its way up the coast to Maine.

“Beginning last winter,” DMR lobster biologist Carl Wilson said, “we started to get a few reports here and there and a couple of samples.” Consequently, this last spring the DMR formed a working committee of fishermen and DMR personnel, called the Lobster Health Sub-committee. Members are Wilson, Stockwell, Deputy Commissioner David Etnier and two lobstermen: Bob Baines, of South Thomaston, and Lyman Kennedy, of Falmouth, who fishes in Casco Bay.

The team has put together a Lobster Health Notice with photos, brief description of lobster shell disease and weak lobster disease, and instructions on what to do if one shows up in a trap. By next month this notice will be posted at buying stations along the coast. “The DMR is requesting information from the fishermen,” Wilson said. “If you don’t want to arrange for a pickup, we still want to know if [and where and in what condition] you find a shell-diseased lobster.

“This is a sensitive issue,” he said. With catches low and shedders, variously called “soft shells” or “new shells,” arriving late this summer because of colder than usual ocean temperatures, fishermen have been nervous. Add the fear of encroaching shell disease, and, Wilson said, “That means every lobster is being scrutinized.” Consequently, in the last three months, lobstermen have sent the DMR more reports and more samples of shell-diseased lobsters.

“Now, is that a real increase?” Wilson asked, “or is it an increase in awareness?” Answering himself, he said it may be both, though “the evidence right now is that it’s primarily an increase in awareness.” Nevertheless, he admitted, “It’s still alarming when a fisherman pulls up a lobster trap and pulls out [a shell-diseased lobster.]”

It should be stated here that shell-diseased lobsters are edible and do not pose a health risk to humans, though Wilson said the meat content is lower than in an unaffected lobster because, he thinks, instead of focusing on growth, the animal is fighting the abrasion or pitting on its shell. Then, too, shell-diseased lobsters sell for less than normal ones.

“The reports and actual physical evidence is, we’ve got a scattering up and down the coast,” he said, adding that “there does seem to be a higher density or a higher occurrence in the Kittery-Piscataqua River area.” Anecdotally, fishermen have reported as much as 15 to 20 percent of their catch so affected, but Thomas Flanigan, of Seaview Lobster in Kittery reported, “We might have seen two with shell disease out of 30 crates. We weren’t seeing shorts, obviously, or V-notches, but we never saw anything approaching one percent.” The DMR’s sea samplers agreed with Flanigan’s numbers.

“There is a concern within the industry, and I do think we’re trying to be a pro-active as possible,” Wilson said, adding that it’s very hard to do anything with the amount of money the DMR has at its disposal. It has allocated half of its research funds, $25,000, toward lobster health research. The other $25,000 went to stock assessment research. The $25,000 for lobster health research went to Charles O’Kelly of the Bigelow Laboratory of Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor. O’Kelly is already collaborating with others who are already working on the problem in southern New England, and Wilson noted, “We’re actually leveraging a lot of expertise for very little money.

“We’ve already sent samples down to Louisiana,” he continued. “It’s great! These people are funded to work in Southern New England, but are interested and concerned enough that they’re still answering the phone when I call.”

In sum, the DMR is doing what it can with an extremely limited amount of money and manpower, gathering and continually updating information on lobster shell disease. “I think we are, in fact, learning quite a bit,” Wilson said, “and we’re doing the best job we can. Could we be doing more? Absolutely.”