It’s been a few years since my back and shoulders were this sore from shoveling snow.
Luckily for me, federal data indicates that my achiness is not just a result of getting older. January was an unusually bitter month for residents of coastal and central Maine.
According to the National Weather Service, January 2015 has been the snowiest and coldest month in the Bangor region in the past five years. Nearly 42 inches of snow fell in January, while the average temperature for the month was 14.5 degrees. That’s about 8 more inches of snow and 3 degrees colder than any month dating back to December 2010.
For the Portland area, the average daily temperature last month was 21.1 degrees – the coldest in the past five years, but only by a fraction of a degree. The 40.5 inches of snow Portland got in January was the second highest monthly total in that five-year period, behind only the nearly 50 inches the city received in February 2013.
In the past 10 days, both Bangor and Portland have had more than 30 inches of freshly fallen snow. And, this being Feb. 2, winter is far from over. Another foot of snow, give or take a few inches, is being predicted for most of the state by Tuesday morning.
So what does all this have to do with seafood? Think back to 2012, one of the most disruptive years Maine fisheries have ever had. Data from the National Weather Service shows just how mild the 2011-12 winter was.
Over four months, from December 2011 through March 2012, a total of 33.5 inches of snow fell in Bangor while Portland got 37.7 inches – less than what either city got just last month. The average temperature that winter was around 33 degrees in Portland and 28 degrees in Bangor – roughly double last month’s average in the Queen City. No snow fell in Maine between March 18 and 23, 2012, when the average daily temperature stayed above 50 degrees and, for a few days, was at least 60.
I remember thinking at the time just how weird it was that time of year to see teenagers jumping into the harbor off the Bar Harbor town pier and people in shorts walking barefoot on Sand Beach in Acadia National Park. Many other people thought the same.
And as that winter wound down, the year got even weirder for fishermen.
The warm temperatures and relative lack of snow melt meant lobster molted a lot earlier than usual, which led to unseasonably high landings at a time of year when demand is typically low and the distribution chain is ill-prepared for handling large catch volumes. As a result, the price of lobster hit rock bottom and stayed there throughout the summer.
For elver fishermen, the weather meant a bonanza for their bottom lines, but it alarmed regulators and conservationists. The spring elver season usually starts out slow but the warm temperatures that year resulted in high volumes of baby eels clogging Maine’s tidal waterways on Opening Day. As a result, the cumulative volume of value of the annual 10-week fishery hit record highs.
Concerns about the sustainability of such catches, when the federal government is considering listing American eels as an endangered species, have since led regulators to limit the statewide catch in the lucrative fishery. The landings may have come down but, at prices of around $500 per pound, elver fishermen still are earning more for their catch than they ever did prior to 2011.
The species that may have suffered the most adverse impact from the warm weather in 2012, albeit indirectly, may have been softshell clams. Maine’s population of green crabs, which eat the clams, exploded in 2012 and 2013, decimating clam beds up and down the coast. Last year, after a harsher winter, the number of crabs along the coast seemed to to subside.
These three fisheries – lobster, elvers and softshell clams – are the three most valuable in Maine, comprising more than 75 percent all the marine fishing revenue in the state (with lobster alone making up nearly 70 percent). And in all three fisheries, the effect of mild winter weather on ocean temperatures was cited by scientists and industry officials as a primary factor on the upheaval the fisheries experienced in 2012 and, to a lesser extent, in 2013.
So despite the disruption and inconvenience of the frigid temperatures and precipitation, it may have some delayed benefit for the fishermen and marine species whose lives and livelihoods are shaped around annual fluctuations in the weather. A cold winter could help lead to normal, predictable seasons for them, which would help produce high-quality local seafood and a decent income for those who bring it in.