Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Warming in Deep Waters May Impact the Gulf of Maine

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

Four years ago, we learned that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than over 99 percent of the world’s ocean. Two weeks ago, we learned that a key circulation system in the Atlantic Ocean is moving more slowly than it has in 1,000 years. This week, we learned that there is deep water flowing into the Gulf of Maine at record-breaking temperatures.

The latest story about our rapidly changing ocean ecosystem comes from a Portland Press Herald article describing research conducted by a team of Canadian scientists. The deep water in question flows into the Gulf of Maine between Georges Bank and Browns Bank, an area known as the Northeast Channel. The researchers, who have been conducting surveys in the area for 15 years, found that the deep water temperatures were nearly 11 degrees above average. As the Portland Press Herald reports, this usually “chillingly cold water…contributes to Maine’s unusually productive ocean waters.”

So what does this mean for New England, a region historically, culturally, and economically tied to the ocean?

Researchers still aren’t certain. But as the Portland Press Herald reports, it was an “ocean heat wave” in 2012 that led to negative impacts on Maine’s lobster industry, clam populations, seagrass beds, and Atlantic puffins.

There’s also concern that recent warming is negatively impacting the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Nick Record from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences told the Portland Press Herald that he’s seen especially warm waters in the same location where the deep-water population of an important food source for right whales has been declining. He said, “That’s the habitat the whales have abandoned in the last few years, so it may be connected to the changes in the deep water coming into the gulf.”

The possible impact on right whales is especially troubling as the species is on the brink of extinction. Fewer than 450 right whales are left in the population, and 17 whales died last year with no new calves this season.

Though mitigating the impacts of warming waters will require a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, there are immediate regional actions that can be taken to increase the resilience of our ocean ecosystem. We need to protect important ocean and coastal habitats that can serve as refuge areas for marine life. We need to stop overfishing our already overfished stocks. We need to prevent right whales from getting entangled in fishing gear.

Strong, precautionary management measures based in sound science are needed now more than ever to maintain a healthy ocean and thriving coastal communities.

Read the article by Colin Woodward in the Portland Press Herald here.


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