In a decade’s time, Ebben Howarth ’23 will likely be the last lobsterman living and working on Block Island. What does this say about the future of Rhode Island’s lobster industry?
By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen
New Shoreham, R.I., née Manisses (translation: Island of the Little God), better known as Block Island, is 7 miles long and 3 miles wide. The smallest town (by population) in the smallest state in the country, it is home to 1,000 or so year-round residents, and its principal industry is tourism. At the height of the season the island might host 15,000–20,000 visitors in a single day.
For close to half a century, the Howarth family has been supplying island visitors and locals with summer’s quintessential gastronomic indulgence, the American lobster. It’s a hard job that’s only getting harder. Southern New England’s lobster population is dwindling. The cause is not entirely clear but some suspect warmer ocean temperatures and a mysterious shell disease are contributing factors, says URI student and fourth-generation Block Islander Ebben Howarth ’23. Though only 24, Howarth, a plant sciences major, speaks from a position of authority. Howarth is the second-to-last lobsterman on Block Island. That is, he is one of only two licensed and active commercial lobster fishers living on Block Island. Howarth’s boat, gear, and license were passed down to him by his grandfather, Freddie “Finn” Howarth. The island’s other lobsterman, John Grant, turns 70 this year.
Come May, Howarth will become the first college graduate in his family. He plans to use his degree in plant sciences to further the family business—in its latest iteration, that is. Howarth’s grandparents owned and operated an island landmark, Finn’s Seafood Restaurant, for 40 years before selling the business in 2021. While his grandmother, Debbie, ran the restaurant (and market), Howarth’s grandfather fished for the lobsters served and sold there. In the Howarth family, entrepreneurship seems heritable, something passed down from generation to generation. Howarth’s mother, a trained midwife, is also an organic produce farmer, and his older sister runs a successful floral business. Since 2021, Howarth and his partner, Maddy Murphy, have owned and operated Howarth Family Lobsters, a sea-to-table catering business, supplied by lobsters he catches.
“Fishing feels like who I am. It makes me feel connected to my family, connected to the island, connected tothe ocean,” Howarth says. “It gives me a lot of pride that I operate the same boat that my grandfather’s run for the past 40 years.”
But can Howarth count on lobsters sticking around for the next 40?
Oceanography professor Jeremy Collie supervises the Graduate School of Oceanography’s Fish Trawl Survey, one of the longest continuous studies of fish and invertebrate abundance in the world. Collie researches the factors affecting marine fish populations’ productivity: harvesting, changes in climate, trophic interactions (feeding and predation behaviors), and human disturbance. He is the principal investigator on a study of the early life of lobsters funded by the National Sea Grant College Program, and since 2014, Collie has been monitoring offshore wind energy’s impact on lobsters and crabs.
“The Southern New England lobster population is not in a good place,” Collie says. “The environment for them is not getting better, but we like to think there’s still room for a sustainable fishery in Southern New England.”
“I’m going to be about five minutes late. Lobster 22 is not cooperating with me!”
Riley Anne Secor is a Ph.D. student studying epizootic shell disease in lobsters. That entails, in part, monitoring the activity of about 40 captive lobsters at the Graduate School of Oceanography’s Marine Ecosystems Research Laboratory in Narragansett. Sometimes they surprise her. “I’m going to be about five minutes late to the interview,” she writes in an email. “Lobster 22 is not cooperating with me!”
By way of explanation: Secor is monitoring lobsters’ metabolism with a respirometer, which tracks their oxygen consumption. Monitoring entails placing the lobster in a tank with an oxygen sensor and limiting its movement to measure standard metabolic rate. “I put the lobsters in these little baskets. They can move a little, but they can’t swim or walk. Lobster 22 somehow figured out how to get out. I opened up the respirometer and found he was swimming all over the place.”
“The Southern New England lobster population is not in a good place. The environment for them is not getting better, but we like to think there’s still room for a sustainable fishery in Southern New England.”Jeremy Collie, professor of oceanography
Secor’s response is a combination of amusement and appreciation.
“For animals that don’t have brains—lobsters just have neural clusters—they’re smart. The older they get, the bigger and stronger they get, they also get good at escaping. I’ll come in on any given day and at least one or two of them have gotten out of their little baskets and they’re just like roaming around the tank.
“I have to keep them in the same tank, but I keep them in the mesh baskets because if they are in contact with each other, they’re combative. They’ll fight and eat each other.”
Secor is interested in a different aspect of the lobsters’ fighting spirit. She’s looking to quantify the energy lobsters expend in fighting off disease. This is of great interest to fishers like Howarth, too. Shell disease does not always kill a lobster nor does it necessarily render the creature inedible. What it does do is drop the market value of the lobster to a third of its usual price. Put plainly, shell disease is nasty. The disease appears as black spots, which, as the rot worsens, turn into holes, “scabby-looking, pitted, and crusty lesions,” Secor says. If the disease progresses far enough, it can cause the outer shell to fuse with the membranes it protects, which can impede the lobster’s ability to molt and grow. “Shell-diseased lobsters have a lowered molt increment, which means they’re growing less. My project is focusing on where the energy not used for growth is going instead.”
Lobster shell disease was first spotted by fishers in Narragansett Bay in the 1930s, according to Oceanus, a magazine produced by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. Fifty years later, lobsters caught in the wild were presenting with the disease, too. The most recent and virulent strain, the one researchers are seeing today, began appearing in the mid-1990s.
“What’s really interesting about this disease is that it’s not contagious; it’s a dysbiosis, meaning it’s a bacterial imbalance,” Secor says. “And the bacteria that cause these lesions are everywhere in the marine environment.”
“Any stress that comes from environmental change or climate change makes organisms more susceptible to disease.”Marta Gomez-Chiarri, professor of fisheries, animal and veterinary sciences
Though a lobster can shed the diseased shell with molting, it can also become reinfected. Also, large female lobsters molt less frequently, which gives the disease more time to take hold. Lobsters with weakened immune systems from, say, warming water temperatures or contaminants, are more susceptible. Lobsters, which can live to be 100 years old, like water temperatures no higher than 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Narragansett Bay’s water temperature is rising. According to climatechange.ri.gov, the state of Rhode Island’s climate change website, the bay’s surface water temperature increased by 2.5–2.9 degrees Fahrenheit between 1960 and 2010, the last year for which the state’s website has data.
‘These diseases are here to stay’
Lobsters can travel hundreds of miles. Some posit that lobsters travel north for colder, deeper waters. What is known is that the incidence of lobster shell disease is lower in offshore lobsters than those in the bay, Collie notes. Another fact: Given that it takes seven years for lobsters to reach maturity, there’s no farming them as you would oysters, which grow to maturity in three years. “Seven years is a long time to see return on investment,” Collie says.
And, as Secor’s experience demonstrates, rearing lobsters would be difficult because of their propensity to kill and eat each other, given the opportunity.
It bears mentioning that lobster shell disease is not the only indicator that Rhode Island’s marine life is under stress. When Professor Marta Gomez-Chiarri came to URI in 1997, Rhode Island was seeing a boom in oyster fishing. As part of her appointment, Gomez-Chiarri was tasked with doing a survey of diseases in oyster populations. At that time, there was one disease on record. There are now five diseases afflicting oysters. Also, Gomez-Chiarri is working with researchers at Roger Williams University to develop diagnostic methods to detect transmissible cancer in clams, and she has studied a wasting disease in sea stars, which causes them to dissolve. “They melt away,” she says.
There’s also a summer flounder disease afflicting juvenile fish—and algae blooms, invasive species, and, of course, shell disease to consider when talking about the health of marine life in Narragansett Bay, Gomez-Chiarri notes.
The news is not all bad. Gomez-Chiarri and other researchers are using genomic tools and have sequenced the oyster genome. They are looking at genetic markers and particular traits that make some oysters more capable of fending off disease and other environmental stressors. “With the support of the industry and Senator Jack Reed, we’ve created the Eastern Oyster Shellfish Breeding Consortium and are working to develop lines of oysters through selective breeding that are resistant to different diseases and also more resilient to climate change, because any stress that comes from environmental change or climate change makes organisms more susceptible to disease,” Gomez-Chiarri says. “We still don’t know what really triggers all these things. It’s always really complicated—and these diseases are here to stay.
“Shell disease is a little harder to manage because we cannot do selective breeding, but maybe we can figure out a way to discourage [the disease] from happening. The truth is, Narragansett Bay is already a little bit too warm for lobsters, but it’s not only temperature. Other things come with temperature change. It also changes phytoplankton conditions. The whole food web seems to be altered by changing conditions each year, from storms and things like that,” Gomez-Chiarri adds.
“There’s a certain awe that comes from being in a small coastal New England town surrounded by ocean. And there’s also this real sense of community.”Ebben Howarth ’23
Along with climate change, disease, rising operating costs, and stricter regulations around lobster fishing, fishers like Howarth face another formidable threat to their livelihood. In September 2022, California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch issued a report urging consumers not to eat New England lobster (as well as East Coast snow crab, cod, and several species of flounder) due to the threat lobster fishing practices pose to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. If entangled by lobstering gear, North Atlantic right whales, whose entire population numbers fewer than 350, may drown immediately or over an extended period of time due to injuries, infections, or starvation induced by the lobstering apparatus. Seafood Watch, considered the world leader in seafood rankings, recommended that markets and restaurants stop offering lobster or label it unsustainable.
Howarth feels blaming commercial lobster fishers for the right whale’s endangered species status is wrong. “I think that when talking about an endangered species, everyone that interacts with it must be self-critical and accountable, lobstermen included. That said, the weight and burden of the recent decrease of right whales has largely been associated with and placed in the laps of commercial lobstermen relatively unfairly. There has never been a right whale death with correlation to lobstering gear proven.”
Howarth notes that there are new regulations regarding the manufacturing of lobster gear, such as placing weak links in buoy lines that break on contact with a marine mammal.
“Lobstermen are at the forefront of measures to protect and negate any possible impacts on right whales,” Howarth continues. “Measures include the testing and demoing of new ropeless fishing gear, which I will likely be testing this coming summer.
“Lobstermen are incredibly conscientious about their impact on the environment and take all possible measures to reduce the impact of any harm to all sea life including North Atlantic right whales.”
Moreover, as the lobster population has declined, local fishers have turned to other marine life, like squid, to supplement their shortfalls. “I’m not sure the local lobster industry has gotten full credit for that,” Collie says. “The industry has already downsized and taken a big hit.”
‘It feels like everything is coming full circle’
Howarth smiles when asked why he isn’t studying marine biology or aquaculture and fisheries science. Dividing areas of knowledge into distinct disciplines is necessary in academia, but boundaries blur when a business model calls for equal parts land and sea, Howarth says.
“With my mom being an organic produce farmer on the island, I, at a very young age, got to see the agricultural side of the history of Block Island. When I was young, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to see farming being done on a sustainable, small-scale level where all the produce is going to feed the local community,” Howarth says. “As I get older, I realize how much that’s really affected my interest in plants. My interest in starting my business is about looking at sustainable local food systems as a whole.”
Howarth points out that almost all the lobsters sold on Block Island come from Point Judith in Narragansett. “What’s important to preserve on Block Island,” he says, “is a sustainable food system within the community.”
At URI, Howarth has studied agroecology with Professor John Taylor and been a teaching assistant in Professor Rebecca Brown’s vegetable crops class. He’s taken horticulture classes with Professor Brian Maynard. He calls all three awe-inspiring. “I’m feeling so much connection to everything I’m learning,” Howarth says. “It feels like everything is coming full circle.”
Howarth is both optimistic and clear-eyed about his future as a lobsterman. “My grandfather says he used to catch tenfold what I catch. And he would haul twice as frequently. That’s tied to overfishing and the environmental reasons that, I think, are causing the lobsters to move north.”
Howarth recognizes that had he not inherited his grandfather’s boat and gear, he’d likely not be fishing. The cost to start a new lobster fishing business in Rhode Island, if a commercial license is available, is more than $250,000 by some estimates, putting it out of reach of most people Howarth’s age. State and federal regulations and policies around fishing also complicate things for aspiring and seasoned commercial fishers, Howarth says.
“If you’re not fishing the quota you’re allotted, you’re cut back on the amount of traps that you can actually fish. And there are other issues. There are certain sizes of fish that you can’t keep. There are certain zones that are shut down during certain times of the year. So, there are a lot of regulations that make it more difficult,” Howarth says. “But the lobster population has already decreased so much. If you got rid of all those regulations, the population would just further decrease. So there has to be a balance.”
The Howarth family has responded to the many legislative and environmental pressures on the commercial fishing industry by expanding its business. Howarth sells lobster—as well as sea bass, tuna, and bluefish—at the local farmer’s market. He’s also invested in supporting other island businesses: His catering business features vegetables from his mother’s farm, Southeast Gardens; floral arrangements from his sister’s business, Harvest Moon Florals; raw bar offerings from Block Island aquaculturists; and the catch of other island fishers.
For the last few years, Howarth has lived on the mainland in Narragansett during the fall and spring semesters. He looks forward to Commencement and to enhancing and expanding his business fueled by the knowledge of his formal education.
“The trades are dying. It’s difficult work, and there’s easier money to be made,” Howarth observes. “I think, too, for young people there’s been a shift: People are less connected to their heritage and to their traditions. I think that’s another driving factor in why the commercial lobstering industry is fading in Rhode Island.
“But there’s a certain awe that comes from being in a small, coastal New England town surrounded by ocean. And there’s also this real sense of community. It’s very rare to live somewhere where you pretty much know everybody.”
This isn’t to say that Block Island is Brigadoon. Life on an island dependent on tourism is unsustainable for many. “Most young people leave the island,” Howarth says. “The winters are long and there’s a lack of work.”
But for Howarth, such a life is still possible. And he’s motivated. Lobstering is more than his work; it’s his heritage. “My grandfather’s been lobstering since he was 13 years old, and I kind of had an epiphany one day that fishing is a part of my family history and if I don’t keep the tradition going and pass it on, it could be gone. So, I feel this duty to do it.
“Living in a small community where you know and respect everybody from the postman to the butcher gives you a sense of security and connection. And it feels like you’re not just there living. You’re part of something bigger,” Howarth says. “And that’s worth preserving.”