Doom and Bloom?

The spring plankton blooms in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank were unusually small. Image: NOAA

Scientists say the amount of zooplankton—the tiny animals near the base of the ocean food web—hit an all-time low this spring in waters off the U.S. Northeast. The latest ecosystem advisory from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center says the biomass of zooplankton this spring on the Northeast Shelf was the lowest on record since the agency began measurements (see graph).

The spring bloom of plankton in the Gulf of Maine came much later than usual this year—the latest on record—and, scientists say, it was “so poorly developed its extent was below detection limits.” The bloom on nearby Georges Bank was also late and small.

Sea surface temperatures this year have been slightly cooler than last year’s record-breaking “ocean heat wave,” but 2013 is still well above average, on track to be the third warmest year for northeast waters in a century and a half of recorded instrument observations.

The NOAA scientists say the region is experiencing “wide swings in physical conditions and biological responses that would appear to reflect great variation in the climate system impacting the ecosystem.”

The science center’s advisories reflect the wealth of data and analysis available about these important ecosystem changes—changes with big implications for the overall biological productivity of our waters and, ultimately, how many fish will be there for people to catch. Unfortunately, this information is not being put to full use in the region’s fisheries management.

Fisheries officials in some other areas are already exploring ways to incorporate such ecosystem indicators in their management, a move toward replacing the outdated, single-species approach with an ecosystem-based fisheries management.

In New England, however, vital information about what’s happening in the ocean food web is not widely shared among fisheries managers and is often only acknowledged as an afterthought to management decisions. Little thought is given to how management actions will affect the broader ecosystem and bureaucratic inertia makes it difficult to respond nimbly to the rapid changes now buffeting our ocean wildlife.

As the effects of warming waters become more apparent, we need a system that recognizes and responds to those effects. Otherwise, our ocean ecosystem and the coastal economies that depend on it will have little chance of weathering a changing climate.


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