Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Fishing in Hot Water

A map of the sea surface temperature anomaly in New England waters.

This is a guest post by Lucy Van Hook of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

As temperatures cool and the wind picks up, it is easy to forget the heat wave that occurred in Gulf of Maine waters in 2012. However, the shockingly high ocean temperatures had significant effects on our marine ecosystems, and the overarching trend of warming continues both globally and here in the Gulf of Maine. Just this week scientists announced that we recently experienced the globe’s hottest September on record, and that 2015 is on track to become the hottest year on record.

Earlier this month, the New England Fisheries Science Center’s Narragansett Laboratory published a study examining the distribution and timing of the different life cycles of fish stocks along the continental shelf over the past 40 years. The conclusion that caught my eye is the disruption throughout multiple life stages. Lead author Harvey Walsh wrote that the apparent change in fish stocks for both larvae and adults over the past decades points to a need for action: “These changes will impact the productivity and distribution of these stocks, and that will have significant implications for their assessment and management.”

Walsh’s study is part of a wealth of recent science offering insight into how warming waters are affecting fish. The crucial next step is to connect that knowledge to our fisheries management. Since 2012, better comprehension of warming waters and the short and long term impacts on fish, have been the subject of many scientific studies. In addition, scientists and managers at NOAA and fishery management councils have been moving towards understanding and managing our changing oceans and fisheries with Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management (EBFM). EBFM is a comprehensive way of managing multiple living resources and balancing shifting needs of forage, predators, and humans in the environment. This is an important step forward from the single species focus of previous management practices.

The recent experience with Northern Shrimp in the Gulf of Maine provides a powerful lesson. Northern Shrimp are a winter fishery for many of Maine’s small boats and is a species very dependent on cold water temperatures for reproduction and survival. Shrimp are also a forage stock for redfish, hake, and dogfish, and are highly dependent on the spring bloom of phytoplankton for food. Leading up to the closure of the fishery in 2013, temperatures within the Gulf of Maine were at historically high levels, predator biomass was on the rise, and the phytoplankton shrimp rely on for food was at its lowest biomass on record. Managers should have been looking at the collective impact that all of these factors, along with fishing, would have on the status of the shrimp stock and should have adjusted catch accordingly. Instead, we continued to manage for maximum yield and crashed the stock. Would a more holistic approach have ultimately stopped the significant decline in shrimp? We can’t be sure, but considering the environmental and ecosystem factors would have given this fishery a better chance at rebuilding in a timely manner. Instead, we are looking at a potential third year shutdown for Northern Shrimp in Maine.

Taking a broader approach to fisheries management allows for increased ecosystem resilience through adaptive management, which in turn can prepare our fisheries and fishermen for the impacts of climate change. Scientific studies continue to provide evidence of warming ocean waters being the product of climate change and excessive carbon pollution. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, so being prepared MUST be a priority for Maine’s fishermen who rely on species that are dependent on cool waters.

Many of our most economically important species, like lobster and shrimp, are already showing signs of stress from warming. Their pursuit of cooler waters decreases the supply of available stocks to Maine and New England fishermen and will leave many fishing communities economically hurting. The New England Fishery Management Council is preparing a Fishery Ecosystem Plan and will be requesting public input in 2016. This plan should be a priority for everyone involved in our regional fisheries.

EBFM provides a mechanism for managers to deal with the impacts of warming waters and climate change, but we, as fishermen, fishing communities, managers and elected officials, must take steps to addressing the root of the problem – greenhouse gas emissions.

More and more fishermen are talking about the changes they are seeing on the water, but it is unclear how they can make their voice heard in the discussion around climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can have real and profound impacts on our fisheries and the future of our coastal communities. Taking opportunities, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, to combat climate change by federally reducing carbon emissions released into the air by power plants, increasing initiatives to generate renewable energy like solar power, and improving energy efficiency, will aid the goals of our local fisheries and support their work of restoring the Gulf of Maine’s diverse ecosystem. As an industry already seeing impacts of warming waters and ocean acidification, we must plan, but we also must act and ask our leaders to continue to fight for protecting our fish stocks and coastal communities.


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