Hurricane Katia moving up the East Coast in 2011. Image from NASA Earth Observatory.
Hurricane Katia moving up the East Coast in 2011. Image from NASA Earth Observatory.

Business as usual meets the new normal: climate change and fisheries management

Categories: CLF Scoop | Talking Fish

What if a 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, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in New England, used that metaphor recently to describe how we are coping with the enormous transformations that are happening in our ocean right now from climate change.

He used this attention-getter at the overdue multi-agency session in Washington, DC last week, the purpose of which was to consider the implications of climate change for fisheries management along the US Atlantic coast. This meeting was overdue in that climate change impacts are already being observed by fishermen and scientists alike, and adjusting to our new “normal” will not be easy and will take time.

For New England, the challenge is stark. The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly heating bodies of water on the Atlantic Coast, if not in the US. 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. 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 dependent on shell-forming animals – scallops and lobsters. Unfortunately, there has been little economic analysis about the implications of this issue yet.

Former fish czar Eric Schwaab also spoke at the climate change workshop, noting that the climate is likely changing faster than the fisheries governance structure. Sadly, New England’s fisheries managers 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 it will likely seem like one compared to future manifestations. Now the natural variability will be happening within an ecosystem that is rapidly changing itself.

Bullard drove this home by saying 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. He then made the obvious point that nothing in our oceans will ever be “normal” again, even though, right now, everyone is acting as if it will be. As if that huge hurricane heading our way will just be going out to sea.

Current examples of the effects of climate abound and were noted by various speakers: black sea bass in NH lobster traps, green crabs taking over the Maine coast, more 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.

I’ve seen it myself, with the glut of longfin squid hanging out on the Massachusetts north shore the last two summers. 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. Moreover, some New England fishermen who imagine that they will soon being fishing on Mid-Atlantic fish stocks may have forgotten that most of those fish are already in limited access fisheries and have been allocated to others.

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 here at the meeting—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, Bullard’s message seemed to me to fall largely on 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 to respond to the dramatic shifts in our marine ecosystems due to climate change was not yet evident at the workshop.

But there is hope for the future. While many of these forces of nature are likely beyond our control even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, we can prepare for changes and increase resiliency by rebuilding as many fish populations as we can and protecting habitat. Dynamic, integrated management will help our fisheries, ecosystems, and communities respond to the realities of a new normal.

 

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Untangling our Ocean with Regional Ocean Planning

Categories: CLF Scoop

Quick – who is in charge of the ocean? Good luck answering that; ocean resources are currently managed by more than 20 federal agencies and administered through a web of more than 140 different and often conflicting laws and regulations. This results in such problems as:

  • Poor communication and coordination about ocean use decisions;
  • Slow, reactive management and decisions that drag on unnecessarily to delay or prevent good projects from moving forward;
  • Exclusion from the process – not all ocean users feel like they have a say in decisions;
  • Difficulty sharing information about uses – it’s hard to make sound decisions without having all the facts in one place.

 

Check out the short video above – our concerned octopus has a great idea for helping to change this: regional ocean planning.

Happily, New England is leading the charge in regional ocean planning, a process that brings together all ocean users – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers, to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

To learn more please visit Conservation Law Foundation’s regional ocean planning page, where we have podcasts, fact sheets, and updates on New England’s very active ocean planning process.

 

Alewife, by Zachary Whalen.
Alewife, by Zachary Whalen.
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Restore New England’s Coastal Fisheries

Categories: CLF Scoop

Once, large predatory cod and other fish were found close to shore in every embayment in New England, chowing down on the plentiful runs of river herring and shad that ran in and out of New England’s rivers. Now, famous coastal fisheries in places like Penobscot Bay have been gone for 50 years or more, despite virtually no commercial finfish fishing during that time. Rebuilding these inshore fisheries will be a long process, but we can start by restoring critical habitat for their prey species.

As former New England Fishery Management Council member David Goethel has often said, fish are pretty much focused on three things: food, sex, and comfortable surroundings (ocean temperatures, habitats and the like). Without prey like river herring, the most persistent preoccupation of the larger predatory fish—food—has been largely missing from inshore waters. And river herring won’t come back until the dams blocking coastal rivers and estuaries are removed, the damaged spawning sites upriver are restored, and the pollution in the region’s rivers is reduced.

Groups throughout New England, from NOAA to the states and municipalities, from large multi-national NGOs like The Nature Conservancy to regional groups like CLF and local watershed associations, have been working for decades to restore those migratory fish runs by tackling all those issues. The New England congressional delegation has historically been very supportive of these efforts through appropriations for restoration and pollution control.

coastal-fisheries

The picture here, taken recently in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shows the removal of the Off Billington Street dam, which was built in the late 1700s and has recently been considered both an ecological problem and a public safety risk. The removal of this dam is part of the larger Town Brook Restoration Project, which will open up hundreds of acres of herring spawning area above these vestigial dams and mill buildings.

The results of that work are only starting to show now. Herring runs are starting to come back, but current returns are still only a shadow of the ecological potential and need. As a crucial step towards rebuilding our inshore fisheries, these efforts can use all the support they can get—both from the environmental community and the fishing community.

Originally posted on CLF.org on 11/12/13

Cape Cod National Seashore
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Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Categories: CLF Scoop | Events/Calendar

With warming seas and ocean acidification putting unprecedented pressure on our already heavily fished, shipped, and polluted coastal areas, adding the extreme pressures of seismic testing and offshore oil drilling, which we keep hearing are supposed to be safe and foolproof, but never really are, seems like a foolhardy move.

There are plenty of other options for developing offshore energy that will not put us at such high risk of horrible toxic spills and deadly-to-wildlife noise. We don’t want dead or deformed fish, whales, and dolphins in our ocean, and tar balls on beaches where our kids build sand castles. We have some of America’s most beautiful coastal areas and amazing ocean life here in New England, and we need to keep them that way.

What can you do to help? Be part of a global campaign by joining one of your local Hands Across the Sand events this Saturday, May 18th, 12 PM local time, to say “No” to dirty fossil fuels and “Yes” to clean, renewable energy. Hands Across the Sand started in Florida in 2010, and has rapidly grown into a major global campaign. The idea is simple – join your fellow ocean champions on the beach, lock hands, and unite in opposition to dirty energy.

Have someone take a picture and post it to the Hands Across the Sands Flickr page (and, if you’re in New England, please share your photos with us, too!), and send it to your elected officials for even greater impact. Visit the Hands Across the Sand page to find a local even or organize your own.

Fishermen, beach-goers, surfers, and conservation groups agree – oil drilling has no place in New England’s ocean. So take a stand and put your Hands Across the Sand!

Cheering Section
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Making a Plan to Protect our Beautiful Places

Categories: Cashes Ledge | CLF Scoop

Now that we are in the throes of a real ocean planning process in New England , how will we protect special places in New England’s ocean? We have both a great responsibility and a great opportunity to do so as we bring people together to make decisions about how we will manage multiple and growing uses in our already busy ocean.

We must identify and protect the beautiful places in New England’s ocean that provide food and shelter and spawning areas that can help our ocean thrive. Places like Cashes Ledge, located about 80 miles east of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. It’s a unique underwater mountain range which provides refuge for a vibrant, diverse world of ocean wildlife.

The steep ridges and deep basins of Cashes Ledge create ideal conditions for marine life as currents mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water at a depth exposed to sunlight. Home to the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard, Cashes Ledge provides an important source of food and a diverse habitat for common New England fish and rare species such as the Atlantic wolffish. This abundance draws in even more ocean wildlife like migrating schools of bluefin tuna, blue and porbeagle sharks, and passing pods of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to marine life but also to scientists hoping to learn about the health and function of New England’s oceans – many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem. As a result, scientists have used Cashes Ledge as an underwater laboratory for decades.

There are many other beautiful places in the Gulf of Maine, some we know about, and some we may not have identified yet. That’s why it’s essential that our regional planning process includes science-driven work to actively identify and protect these ecologically important areas. The basic chemistry of our ocean is rapidly changing, and if our ecosystems are going to adapt, they will need the space and time to do so. Reducing fishing, shipping, and other pressures on certain areas may be one of the best ways to give them these.

As CLF continues to be extremely active in New England’s ocean planning process, we will also continue highlighting the need to protect New England’s beautiful places and thriving ecosystems.