New England Fisheries

Warming Waters and New England Fisheries

The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet. Image via NOAA.

Two news items this week drew attention to the rapid warming of Gulf of Maine waters and the implications for regional fishery management. Reporter Rebecca Kessler at Yale’s E360 laid out the emerging science about the extraordinary rate of warming and how fish and other marine animals are responding. In Working Waterfront, Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association offers ideas on how an ecosystem-based approach could help managers handle these new challenges.

Fast-warming Gulf of Maine offers hint of Future for Oceans by Rebecca Kessler

After hauling in the cages at his island oyster farm near Biddeford, Maine, Mark Green’s boat is loaded with crusty marine life. Baskets of oysters are there, but so are green crabs — invasive and inedible. “My boat will be full,” Green says. “The bottom will just be this undulating mass of green crabs bythe end of the day. I mean thousands.”

A native of Europe, green crabs have been present on the U.S. East Coast for more than a century, but until a couple of years ago they didn’t cause much trouble in Maine. Now, thanks to rapidly warming waters, their population has exploded. While they don’t bother the tough-shelled oysters, the crabs are laying waste to the region’s softshell clams — another important commercial stock — and devastating its seagrass meadows, which Green, an environmental scientist at St. Joseph’s College in nearby Standish, calls “the most crucial habitat that exists in an estuary.”

The seething, skittering masses of green crabs and mudflats depleted of clams and seagrass are just a few signs of big changes underway in the Gulf of Maine…Observers say the gulf has become a “living laboratory” for how climate change could play out in marine ecosystems around the world…

All of this is happening against a backdrop of more familiar problems, like overfishing, pollution, and chronic low-oxygen hotspots, which scientists say can combine to stress organisms and make it difficult to pinpoint why they may be struggling. Read more.


Shrimp the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of Gulf of Maine by Ben Martens

On Nov. 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section met in Portland and, after a scientific presentation, voted unanimously to close the shrimp fishery for another year. The handful of fishermen and processors in the room pleaded for a short season—anything to keep boats on the water.

However, the results of the annual survey and stock assessment showed the second lowest biomass on record (the lowest was in 2013). The scientific Technical Committee left the shrimp section with a strong message: “Long term trends in environmental conditions are not favorable for northern shrimp. This suggests a need to conserve spawners to help compensate for what may continue to be an unfavorable environment.”

Managers had no choice but to keep boats tied up for another season.

Since the moratorium last season, shrimp have been called the “canary in the coal mine for climate change” in New England fisheries. But the canary analogy, which simply tells the miners to get out or die, may be too simple. Rather, the decline in shrimp seems to be akin to Rachel Carson’s cry for action as she explored the causes of declining bird populations in the late 1950s. The loss of shrimp this season isn’t just a warning: it is an opportunity to identify a responsive path forward for fisheries management.

Climate change is the elephant in the room when it comes to fisheries management…our waters are going to continue to warm and scientists, managers and fishermen will need to figure out how to adapt. Shrimp is our best opportunity to learn how. Read more.


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