10/20/2012 06:55 EDT | Updated 12/20/2012 05:12 EST

Maritime seafood industry adjusting to accommodate rising water temperatures

HALIFAX - Members of the Maritime seafood sector say they're looking at making adjustments in the lobster industry as the Atlantic Ocean continues to heat up.

Fishermen and seafood processors say that in recent years, warmer water temperatures have caused lobsters to start shedding their hard shells earlier — a process known as molting — revealing a more vulnerable soft shell lobster that's susceptible to disease.

"Things are changing, and we may not be able to totally control it, but we're going to have to react to it and start planning for it as we go forward," said Osborne Burke, general manager of Victoria Co-operative Fisheries Ltd. in Neil's Harbour, N.S.

"Changes are going to have to come in our industry from various sectors. Right from the fishermen, to the buyers, to processors and how we handle the product."

Burke said some fishermen and harvesters in Nova Scotia are looking at putting in a request to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to have next year's lobster season adjusted slightly to avoid the warm summer months.

The Lobster Council of Canada said it's a concern that's echoed across the Maritime provinces and an option also being considered in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

"A lot of the challenges that we're seeing right now are based on fundamental environmental changes," Geoff Irvine, executive director of the council, said from Moncton, N.B.

"It's changing, in many ways, the typical seasons, the typical behaviour of the lobsters. That has created some challenges within the current seasons."

Boris Worm, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said global warming trends suggest Maritime water temperatures will continue to increase, but it varies from region to region.

"It's most likely that this will continue to be a problem and a more important problem in the future," said Worm from Halifax.

"We're not in a stationary environment anymore. Things are changing. It will affect us and now we're seeing the signs and it's important to be aware of that."

But while some lobsters in more southern areas are moving northward as temperatures warm, Worm said Maritime lobsters are here to stay.

"Right now, we're close enough to the northern limit of lobster that they're actually doing quite well with the warm water temperatures. We're seeing a very high abundance of lobsters," said Worm.

Some seafood processors in Cape Breton said storing excess lobster in ocean water holding pens is becoming too risky.

Burke said he lost about 22,600 kilograms of lobster this year. Last year, he lost around 6,800, he said.

Seafood processors are beginning to rely more heavily on chilling tanks, which store lobsters at around 3 C, said Burke. He said some areas off northern Cape Breton experienced waters as warm as 17 C towards the end of this lobster season.

"When the markets slow down... you end up with surplus inventory and that's when you have to careful because you're not holding something in a carton that you can put on a shelf. It's a live product and can get easily stressed," said Burke.

"Increasing capacity and holding capacity would allow us to better supply a more stable supply to the marketplace on our terms and not because we have no choice and we're backed up."

The co-op currently has room for about 90,000 kilograms of lobster in its chilling tanks, but doubling that would be ideal, said Burke.

Last week, Burke brought the concern to the Nova Scotia government's Standing Committee on Resources to seek support.

"I think they need to sit back and look at where they are with their programs and put a priority to that," said Burke.