New England Fisheries

Managing Fisheries in “A Climate of Change”

Sea surface temperatures were anomalously warm in the North Atlantic in 2012, forcing fish and fishermen to adapt to a changing climate. Photo: NOAA

You might think that after nearly four decades as a commercial fisherman Rodman Sykes had seen it all. But lately Sykes is seeing some surprises in the nets of his trawler and other vessels fishing out of Point Judith, Rhode Island.

“Cobia is primarily a southeastern fish. We’re now seeing one or two a week,” Sykes told an audience in Portland, Maine. “And Atlantic gar, which I’ve never seen, some guys are catching.” Sykes listed a half dozen southerly species that were once rare in his waters but now are becoming common—clearnose and barndoor skates, tilefish, mahi mahi, and the torpedo ray. “Those are electric!” Sykes said of the torpedo rays. “You ought to see the other fish in the net jump when one of those is in there!”

Sykes spoke at the two-day symposium “A Climate of Change.” The Maine nonprofit Island Institute organized the event to bring fishermen, scientists, fishery managers, and NGOs together to share information and ideas about how climate change is already affecting fishing, and what they can do about it.

Other fishermen spoke of new arrivals in their waters, the spread of invasive species due to warming, and shifts in the abundance of fish. Scientists presented data backing up those observations: many species are making their way northward along the U.S. coast in response to warming waters. Also, many temperature-sensitive New England fish already subjected to chronic overfishing may be further stressed by ocean warming. The combination of depleted fish stocks, degraded ocean habitat, and a changing climate presents a serious challenge to the region’s fishing and, participants agreed, requires a new approach to fisheries management.

The Heat is On

University of Maine Assoc. Prof. Andy Pershing works with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute tracking the rise of sea temperatures. Pershing said the region has seen an increase in the rate of warming over the past seven years, culminating in the “ocean heat wave” last year that brought record high sea surface temperatures from the Outer Banks of North Carolina northward through Canadian waters. “2012 was off-the-charts warm,” Pershing said. The projections for a gradual warming are challenge enough for fisheries, he added, “but it’s these weird events of short, rapid warming that really throw you curve balls.”

Cutler, ME, fisherman Kristan Porter says fishermen are trying to adapt as fin fish and lobsters change their behavior in response to warming. “All the stuff old guys taught us about how to fish is all out the window, everything’s different,” he said. Porter says he and others are working with fishery managers to be good stewards of marine resources, “but we can’t manage the unforeseen.”

Other speakers at the event pointed out that climate change is happening against a backdrop of other changes to the ecosystem, including the pressures from fishing. “Climate, while important, was not the primary reason for the collapse of cod,” said Tom Dempsey, policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “We did that. We mismanaged our ecosystem. We made that mess,” Dempsey warned, adding that climate change should not “become a crutch for failing to address our other problems.”

Managing in Uncertain Times

With cod at historic low levels of abundance and New England’s groundfish in crisis, it’s clear that mismanagement of the resource has long been a problem. Add the challenges of climate change and the situation can seem daunting. But Lee Crockett, U.S. Oceans director for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said there are actions that could help fish recover from past damage and become more resilient to new threats. These include protecting more marine habitat, reducing overfishing, and making sure there are plenty of forage fish for predators to eat.

Crockett and others also called for officials to adopt an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. Michael Fogarty of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center says the current system ignores many ecological impacts of management decisions. “We need to think about a system holistically, rather than focusing on individual species as if they do not have interactions with others,” Fogarty said.

The ecosystem approach, coupled with more real-time monitoring of ecological indicators, such as temperature and abundance of plankton, would allow managers and fishermen to better anticipate and respond to environmental changes likely to affect fishing.

Pew’s Crockett said it will also be important to know the status of species that are moving due to warming before targeting them when they start to show up. “When fish are new to an area we need to understand impacts of fishing on the fringe of a species’ range,” Crockett said. That echoed cautions from scientists, who said studies showed pioneer species are especially vulnerable to overfishing.

Fishery managers in other regions are taking some steps toward these goals. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is implementing an ecosystem-based approach. And in Alaska federal managers put a large section of Arctic waters off limits to fishing until the effects could be studied.

A Delayed Response

Many participants were frustrated at what they described as a slow response to these issues in New England. Dempsey, who also serves on the New England Fishery Management Council, said the council has “failed to get out of starting blocks” on ecosystem-based management.

And recent decisions from NOAA’s regional fisheries office appear to move things in the wrong direction when it comes to the sort of responses needed to adapt to climate change. As Talking Fish has reported, NOAA has identified habitat protection as a top priority for helping fish adapt to climate change. Yet the agency recently proposed to allow bottom trawl fishing in some 3,000 miles of closed areas that have protected habitat for spawning and juvenile fish for decades.

Gulf of Maine Research Institute research scientist Graham Sherwood presented data at the conference that shows those closed areas have helped haddock, winter flounder and other fish. Sherwood had interesting findings about the age structure of cod populations in New England. Older cod (those over five years old) are eight times more prevalent inside closed areas than in surrounding waters. These older fish are more productive egg layers and important for rebuilding the population.

There’s an irony here that a region with a slow response to climate change is the one experiencing some of the most rapid sea temperature increases and most pronounced effects on marine life. The Climate of Change event sparked some important and long-overdue conversation; let’s hope that discussion inspires some changes in our fisheries management, as well.



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