New England Fisheries

Upcoming Paris Climate Negotiations: Will New England Fishermen Sea Change?

As of November, Maine lobster exports to China were valued at $27.5 million. Photo credit: Josh Cummings.

Climate change directly impacts global fisheries. In just over six months the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is focused on stabilizing greenhouse gases at a level that prevents human interference with the climate system, will hold a meeting in Paris, France. The 195 countries party to this convention will meet in Paris at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to discuss an international agreement on climate. While thousands of miles separate Paris from New England, the issues at the forefront of COP21’s agenda hit close to home. In fact, New England fishermen have a lot at stake in the upcoming climate negotiations.

The goal of Paris COP21 is to reach a universal and legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This agreement to combat global climate change will enter force in 2020, after the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol on emissions reductions ends.

The COP uses work published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to make science-based decisions. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) highlights the connections between climate change and fisheries. Climate change is causing a redistribution of marine species and a reduction of marine biodiversity in certain sensitive marine regions. AR5 notes that in the last few decades, marine fishes, invertebrates, and phytoplankton have changed in abundance and shifted to deeper and cooler waters. The report also explains how since the industrial era increased carbon in the atmosphere has been absorbed by the ocean, causing ocean acidity levels to rise.

We have already observed such changes in New England fisheries. As ocean temperatures in the region rise, we are finding cod moving north and to deeper waters. Similarly, lobstermen in southern New England are out of luck, with no lobsters to catch. Black sea bass have also shifted from the mid-Atlantic into the Gulf of Maine, and are becoming a new commercial species and a potential predator in the area.

Increased ocean acidity poses additional challenges for New England’s fisheries. In particular, acidic waters make it “less energetically favorable” for shellfish to secrete their calcium carbonate shells. This impacts oysters, clams, and scallops in New England, and results in destroyed larvae, stunted growth, and increased predation of such organisms. These local effects from climate change in New England’s ocean waters stem from what is a global problem.

In preparation for the Paris climate meeting, the U.S. has shared its commitment to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 by 26-28 percent below its 2005 level. In order to successfully combat climate change, all parties to the UNFCCC must work together in Paris and come to a legally binding agreement on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, and locally within New England, directly impact the health of our ocean and the prosperity of the fishermen and communities that depend on the ocean. Mitigating climate change is an important part of our efforts to protect special places in New England’s ocean and the fisheries that are so important to New England’s heritage.


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