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Rising ocean temperatures mean blue crabs are showing up in Maine lobster traps

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In a region known for its lobster, a new species is showing up with more frequency in Maine. Blue crabs, the prize centerpiece of a summertime meal in the Chesapeake Bay, are expanding their range northward as Maine's waters warm due to climate change. Scientists are now trying to understand what their arrival could mean for Maine's traditional fisheries. Maine Public Radio's Nicole Ogrysko reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN MARSH)

NICOLE OGRYSKO, BYLINE: Laura Crane winds her way around a maze of shallow pools at the Webhannet Marsh on the southern Maine coast. She stops at one pool with a small, blue flag poking through the tall grass at the water's edge, grabs the rope lying nearby and pulls.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

LAURA CRANE: OK, first trap, we already have two blue crabs.

OGRYSKO: She hauls a small wire-mesh trap up from the muck.

(SOUNDBITE OF EQUIPMENT CLANKING)

OGRYSKO: And with metal kitchen tongs in hand, Crane attempts to pry away one of the crabs that's clutching the side with its bright blue claws. Blue crabs have been known to show up now and then in Maine lobster traps, but fishermen are seeing more of them in recent years. And Crane, who's studying blue crabs for the Wells Research Reserve, says that, lately, she's been catching around two to three dozen of them a week. Scientists say blue crabs are one of many species that is expanding its range into the Gulf of Maine, which is one of the fastest-warming parts of the Atlantic. Their arrival is a concern for shellfish harvester Max Burtis, who found a blue crab while raking for clams near the Maine midcoast a few years ago.

MAX BURTIS: I'm worried about baby lobsters. I'm worried about baby clams.

OGRYSKO: Blue crabs are aggressive competitors. Helen Cheng is a marine scientist with the Wells Research Reserve. She recalls watching a blue crab voraciously consume a baby lobster in an experiment tank.

HELEN CHENG: If that's a snapshot of what we may end up seeing in the Gulf of Maine, that's very concerning, especially if they can target smaller lobsters.

OGRYSKO: But Burtis says he sees the potential benefits of a blue crab population in Maine. They could help to control some invasive species, and blue crabs are one of the most valuable fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay. Landings from Maryland and Virginia topped about $60 million last year.

But not everyone is open to the possibility of a new commercial fishery. Cheng has surveyed lobster fishermen from Cape Cod to Down East Maine about the arrival of range-expanding species such as blue crabs. She says while some fishermen in southern New England are open to a potential blue crab fishery, many in Maine are skeptical.

CHENG: Some of the responses were pretty bold. It's like, no, we only do lobster here. Like, that's what we've been doing. Like - and so there's this sense of pride and tradition for that.

OGRYSKO: Scientists stress that Maine does not yet have an established blue crab population.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN MARSH)

OGRYSKO: But back at the Webhannet Marsh...

CRANE: Oh, there is a mating pair in here.

OGRYSKO: Researcher Laura Crane pulls another trap and discovers two blue crabs that have bonded together.

(SOUNDBITE OF EQUIPMENT CLANKING)

OGRYSKO: She says several mating pairs have been found in these traps - one of many signs that blue crabs at multiple life stages are now in the Gulf of Maine. And for blue crabs to become established here, they'll have to survive multiple Maine winters, which scientists acknowledge are getting milder.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Ogrysko in Wells, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "MESA REDONDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nicole Ogrysko