For lobster in the Gulf of Maine, it may be the best of times and the worst of times.

In recent years, lobstermen enjoyed record-breaking landings and relatively strong prices. But now ocean researchers are warning that they can’t find lobster larvae in the usual places. If, as is feared, the number of lobster larvae is declining sharply, there might soon be scarcity in a fishery that is enjoying abundance. 

Since the 1980s, New England and Atlantic Canadian researchers have been annually counting the young-of-year lobster that settle to the sea bed as larvae. They believe this count and other population measurements can go a long way toward predicting the future health of the lobster population.

But since 2007, researchers have seen diminished numbers of the larvae in locations where they usually are found in great numbers. That decline has accelerated in the past couple of years to the point where researchers are seeing less than half the larvae observed roughly a decade ago. After undertaking the most recent survey, state lobster biologist Carl Wilson said it was time to warn the lobster industry to brace for a possible decline in landings.

“Things might not always be the way they are today,” Wilson said.

That’s a safe assumption, especially since landings have never been so strong. In the 1950s, for example, Maine’s lobster industry was landing some 20 million to 30 million pound. Today, landings are well over 100 million pounds, says Dr. Robert Bayer of the Lobster Institute.

“The question is, how long can we maintain this level of harvest?” Bayer said. 

There may not be a good answer, researchers warn, because we’re headed into uncharted territory with the Gulf of Maine. The lobster fishery has been an outlier in Gulf of Maine stock health, expanding at a time when other fisheries have diminished. That alone is unprecedented, but scientists also are noting fluctuations in the Gulf that have reached a tipping point toward warmer waters and increased acidity. No one can say for sure what the effects will be.

“A lot of fishery science is based on an equilibrium state where variables are somewhat predictable and you can account for changes over time,” Wilson said. “There’s a very good chance that we’re in period of flux.”

Some conclusions about the survey can be drawn, including that overfishing isn’t leading to the larvae decline, as lobsterman have gotten good at protecting egg-bearing and undersized lobster. Another known is that it appears the drop in larvae is occurring all over the Gulf of Maine. But beyond these, it’s too soon to tell what is happening, says Dr. Rick Wahle, a University of Maine marine scientist who helped create the index to measure lobster larvae.

“There’s no smoking gun and the jury is still out,” Wahle said.

The lobster industry is in no immediate danger of a sudden collapse, as the number of undersized lobster remains strong, but the industry should brace for change, researchers say. Because Maine’s lobster industry is well-regulated, including its vigilant self-regulation, researchers hope the industry has a stronger chance than most fisheries to ride out a down turn.

Wilson says the state’s lobstermen have gotten very good at adapting to change.

“Fishermen are very similar to a scientist on how to approach a problem,” Wilson said. “They have 800 experiments going on in the water daily.”