Consider the crustaceans, arthropods that feature a hard exoskeleton composed of the carbohydrate chitin and calcium carbonate but have no internal skeleton. While there are nearly 68,000 known species of crustaceans, as per ecologists and co-authors Alan Covich, PhD, James Thorp, PhD, and D. Christopher Rogers, PhD, the ones most popular as human consumables are decapods—specifically lobsters, crabs, shrimps, prawns, and crayfish.
In 2017, the highest landed value U.S. commercial seafood categories were salmon ($688 million), crabs ($610 million), lobsters ($594 million), and shrimp ($531 million), according to recently available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Blue crab is the largest crab fishery by volume in the United States and is mainly harvested in coastal bays and estuaries along much of the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017, 147,725,136 pounds of blue crab were landed in the U.S., valued at $197,359,499; the landed value for Dungeness crab exceeded that of blue crab ($213,509,758 for 61,571,073 pounds), according to NOAA. Commercial value notwithstanding, shrimp has consistently been the No. 1 seafood consumed in the United States at 4.4 pounds per person in 2017, NOAA Fisheries reports.
There are three commercial lobster fisheries in the United States: American lobster, Homarus americanus, a clawed lobster; and two spiny species: the Caribbean lobster, Panulirus argus, and the California lobster, Panulirus interruptus, according to Richard Wahle, PhD, a professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine (UMaine), Orono, and director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute.
As a center of scholarship and outreach in UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture, the Lobster Institute strives to foster collaboration and communication in support of a sustainable and profitable lobster industry in the Northeast U.S. and Canada, Dr. Wahle says. “Institute staff engage with lobster scientists, fishery managers, health regulators, and legislators to address industry priorities through collaborative research, educational workshops, and conferences,” he adds.
“The American lobster comprises the most valuable single-species fishery in the United States,” Dr. Wahle says. “Of all the various species of edible fish and aquatic invertebrates sold commercially in the U.S., the American lobster boasts the greatest total annual landed value.”
H. americanus is native to the northwest Atlantic coast from offshore North Carolina to the Canadian province of Labrador. “The species is especially abundant in the Gulf of Maine, the Scotian Shelf, and the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, encompassing from south to north the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, and the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec,” Dr Wahle says.
The Gulf of Maine produces 90 percent of the U.S. lobster harvest, with 80 percent coming from Maine alone, he notes. “Massachusetts ranks a distant second place in U.S. lobster harvest,” Dr. Wahle adds. “Additional states contributing minor amounts commercially include Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Very small amounts are harvested in North Carolina offshore deep water.”
In 2016, 120 million pounds of live American lobsters were harvested in the U.S., with a landed value of $530 million, Dr. Wahle reports, adding that the Maine lobster harvest peaked in 2016. “In October 2019, the Maine Department of Marine Resources reported that the 2019 Maine harvest was down by some 20 percent to 40 percent from the previous year, but harvesters have reported a strong fall run,” Dr. Wahle says. The total 2019 Maine lobster harvest is forthcoming.
New Research Underway
In 2019, the U.S. Congress appropriated $2 million in federal funds for lobster research administered by the NOAA Sea Grant Program. “The initiative supports seven new research projects in the Northeast and an expansion of the exiting Sea Grant extension program to include a lobster specialist,” Dr. Wahle says. “The research will address critical gaps in knowledge about American lobster responses to environmental change and how to provide opportunities to increase economic resilience and adaptation in the lobster fishery. The goal of this initiative is to shed light on how to preserve the H. americanus fishery. This is especially important because lobster quality depends in large part on species sustainability.”