Is Climate Change Threatening Maine’s Staple Foods?

Insects and bacteria are hampering quintessential Down East foods.
Farmers in Maine are worried that a new breed of fruit fly could threaten future blueberry harvests. (Photo by: Jeanene Scott/Getty Images)
Aug 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

If you're eating in Maine in the summertime and blueberries and lobster aren't on the menu, you're doing something wrong. The crustacean and fruit have deep roots in the state, but their production is under threat.

Climate change, among other factors, is bringing unwanted visitors to both crops—a bacteria that feeds on lobster shells and fruit flies that wreck wild blueberries—posing an unprecedented threat to two of the state's biggest industries. Maine's blueberry crop—which brings more than $250 million to the state annually—has been visited by a new breed of fruit fly over the last few seasons, one that wreaks havoc on soft fruits throughout the country. The spotted wing drosophila migrated cross-country to Maine from California and has many Maine blueberry farmers worried about the future of their industry. It is the first exotic insect pest to be introduced to the Maine blueberry crop since the fruit first developed in the area 12,000 years ago, says Frank Drummond, professor of insect ecology at University of Maine.

"The [spotted wing drosophila] is most likely here to stay," says Drummond, whose department works closely with the state's blueberry farmers on issues of pest prevention and pollination. "I am afraid it is a pest that will have to be monitored for and managed from now on."

And what of the risks to lobsters—the crustacean worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Maine fishermen and coastal communities? Warming oceans off of Maine have resulted in record-high lobster catches and record-low prices, but the mild seas are also aiding a shell-eating bacteria that can make Southern New England lobsters unsightly and more difficult to sell. For a number of years, the disease was not observed in Maine, but researchers saw a fivefold increase between 2010 and 2012.

Still, Carl Wilson, lobster biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, cautions that people should be concerned, but not alarmed. Observers might see the spike in shell disease—which researchers say could be caused by rising water temperatures, pollution, and low oxygen levels in the water—and think, "Oh, my god, that's a huge increase," he told The Boston Globe. "But it's not, considering all the sampling we have and all the caveats of our sampling design. But it's something we are watching."

If the spotted wing drosphilas continue to put a strain on Maine's blueberry production—which yeilds between 70 and 100 million pounds per year, the majority of which are frozen—organic blueberry producers will be hardest hit. But Drummond says harvesting the berries earlier, as well as an experimental mesh trap for the flies, could help keep the pests off the berries.

"Given the amount of research being conducted not just in Maine, but throughout the U.S., management methods that are based upon least toxic control tactics will be derived for growers to produce a nice crop," Drummond says.

After a particularly rough patch in May, how have the berries fared the rest of the summer? Farmers have gotten some relief from the insects thanks to unseasonably cool, damp weather, says David Bell, Executive Director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. If the weather continues to cooperate and farmers go forward with an earlier harvest as planned, Maine could still scrounge a "strong average" blueberry crop.

"We can still end up with a high-quality bag at the end of the day," Bell says. "If we were to have large losses, it's a loss of income to the farmers, the processors. Our partnership with the University of Maine is key to addressing challenges and assisting our growers and processors in providing high-quality, healthy, frozen wild blueberries available all year."