New England Fisheries

Business as usual meets the new normal in New England fisheries

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are rising rapidly. Image: NEFSC/NOAA

What if the hurricane with the lowest low pressure readings ever seen in human history was barreling toward the East Coast and all we did was debate if it was a category 4 or 5? John Bullard, New England regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), used that metaphor last week at the East Coast Climate Change and Fisheries Governance Workshop to describe how we are coping—or not coping—with the enormous transformations happening in our ocean right now due to climate change.

This overdue multi-agency session was hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and was intended to consider the implications of climate change for fisheries management along the US Atlantic coast. It was overdue in that climate change impacts are already being observed by fishermen and scientists alike, and adjusting to our new reality will not be easy and will take time.

For New England, the challenge is stark. Fisheries managers here have not particularly distinguished themselves in the first 30 years of the Magnuson-Stevens Act even with a relatively stable ecosystem. Yes, I know—there is no such thing as a stable ecosystem—but our current conditions will likely seem like one compared to future manifestations. Natural variability will be happening within an ecosystem that is itself rapidly changing.

The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly heating bodies of water on the Atlantic Coast, if not in the US. Average sea surface temperatures in 2012 were the highest on record, and they were only slightly lower in 2013. These temperature changes are sending the sea life off to seek their comfort zone – according to NMFS, 24 of 36 stocks evaluated seem to be moving north or away from coastal waters. The timing and abundance of spring plankton blooms is changing quickly, shaking the foundation of the marine food web.

And to make matters worse, our ocean is also acidifying at increasingly alarming rates. This can cause major problems for shell-forming animals, and much of our fishing economy is highly dependent on shell-forming animals – scallops and lobsters. Unfortunately, there has been little economic analysis about the implications of this issue yet, but one study found that New England could lose hundreds of million dollars of revenue due to acidification. If lobsters fail and with no groundfish to switch to, much of coastal Maine’s fishery will be lost.

John Bullard, regional director for NMFS in New England, set the proper tone for the discussion at the workshop last week. Pointing out that the current climate-changing 400 parts-per-million levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been experienced by mankind, let alone New England fishermen, Bullard made the obvious point that nothing in our oceans will ever be “normal” again, even though everyone is acting as if it will be.

Current examples already abound and were noted by various speakers: black sea bass in NH lobster traps, green crabs taking over the Maine coast, summer flounder summering more in New England than ever before, no northern shrimp fishery to be found, and the looming end of the southern New England lobster fishery. Many New England fishermen imagine that they will soon being fishing on Mid-Atlantic fish stocks, forgetting that many of those fish are already in limited access fisheries and have been allocated to others.

While we can hope that these changes will be gradual and that an incremental approach will suffice, many ecologists suggest that the “state changes” could be rapid, extensive, and irreversible.  Former fish czar Eric Schwaab noted that the climate was likely changing faster than the fisheries governance structure. Given the fact that virtually all stock assessment models and all stock access and allocation approaches are based on historical landing records that may soon be irrelevant and that government funding for ecosystem data collection and analysis that could be used for forecasting is being gutted by our politicians, Schwaab’s observations likely underemphasized the peril of the current situation.

Bullard put his finger on what is needed at such a critical pivotal moment: leadership. In his words (loosely transcribed), leadership requires responding to a threat with actions commensurate to the size of the threat even if everyone around you is acting like the threat doesn’t exist.

Amen. While it is hard to put aside my cynicism about the likelihood that this Rube Goldberg fisheries management system—Dr. Mike Orbach’s metaphor—is up to the task, the challenge is clear and the stakes could not be higher for fishermen and fishing communities up and down the Atlantic coast.

In the end, however, Bullard’s message seemed to me to fall largely on many deaf ears at the workshop, with much of the to-do discussion focused on managing at the margin and improved coordination between the New England and mid-Atlantic councils. In other words, business as usual. The leadership adequate to respond to the fisheries impacts from the dramatic shifts in our marine ecosystems due to climate change was not particularly evident at the workshop.

While many of these forces of nature are likely beyond our control even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, the best way to prepare for changes is to increase resiliency by rebuilding as many fish populations as we can, protecting marine biodiversity, and protecting habitat.  Management along the coast has to be dynamic and integrated—in other words, not business as usual.


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