A pair of Atlantic longfin squid. Photo by Josh Cummings.
A pair of Atlantic longfin squid. Photo by Josh Cummings.
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Live Fast, Die Young, Shift North – Longfin Squid (Cool Fish, Hot Water Part II)

Categories: Creature Features

This is Part II in our “Cool Fish, Hot Water” series. I know what you’re thinking, squid aren’t fish, but we weren’t sure we had enough fodder for a “Cool Cephalopod, Hot Water” series, so may the squid forgive us, but today they are fish. -Ed.

Things are heating up in New England’s ocean. Last month Leah Fine posted an outstanding piece on a warming trend in the Gulf of Maine, and the new faces we are starting to see off our coasts as a result. I can make no better introduction to the topic than Leah has already done, so I’m just going to dive right in and talk about another of the newcomers we’ve recently welcomed. Or, more correctly, an occasional visitor that seems to be making itself at home lately.

Longfin squid are no strangers to Atlantic waters, but they usually congregate from southern Georges Bank down to Cape Hatteras. Migrating seasonally, longfin squid spend the colder months offshore along the edge of the continental shelf, and come inshore in the spring as the water warms up, starting in the southern end of their range and proceeding north along the coast to Cape Cod.

But, according to CLF’s Peter Shelley, “Squid have been everywhere on the north shore of Massachusetts these past two summers. People were camped out on Marblehead’s public docks all night, it seemed, removing buckets and buckets of squid every day. Even I could catch them… and they were delicious.”

They are pretty tasty – if you enjoy calamari you’ve probably eaten them yourself. But Peter was surprised to see so many of them lately. “I have never seen them in such swarms before in all my years on the waters here,” he said recently. Peter’s location on the north shore of Massachusetts puts him in a front row seat for observing a range extension of commercially viable concentrations of longfin squid.

He’s not the only one who’s noticing the change. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has listed longfin squid as an “emerging fishery” of Mid-Atlantic “stocks on the move.” According to their recent report on the topic, “centers of population for butterfish, longfin squid, summer flounder, and black sea bass have been steadily moving north since the 1990s.” They predict that the changes we are seeing in our ocean right now will have “significant effects on fisheries worldwide.” One species moving around a little bit may not seem like a big deal, but when you put that species in its ecosystem context, you can understand why scientists, fishermen, and regulators are getting worried.

Longfin squid have fleeting lives – their entire population is estimated to turn over very six months – but they are an important prey species for some of our commercial and recreational fishing favorites, like striped bass, bluefish, cod, haddock, and flounder. In turn, they rely on a diverse buffet themselves for food. When small they eat plankton, and graduate to crustaceans and small fish like mackerel, herring, and anchovies as they get bigger (is anyone else getting hungry?). They have also been known to eat each other, the little cannibals. In short — they are an important strand of the complex web of life in our ocean.

Nature changes and animals move around all the time, so any one species turning up in an unusual place or in unusual numbers doesn’t necessarily mean a big shift is happening, but the squid are just one of so many species on the go right now, that it’s hard not to worry things are really changing fast in our ocean. It will be challenging to keep up with the changes from commercial, regulatory, and conservation standpoints – but I think we’d all better give it our best shot. Keep checking back over the next few weeks and we’ll update you on more of our newest arrivals in New England’s ocean.

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

Surfer
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Announcing Our October Photo Contest Winner!

Categories: Photo Contest

Congratulations to Mike Duggan, our winning photographer for October’s contest! This photo of an intrepid surfer checking out the waves was taken in Gloucester, MA. We love the way the salt spray meets the sky in this beautiful shot. Even in cool autumn weather, surfers are one of the many groups that enjoy our coastlines.

Do you have a great photo of New England’s oceans to share?  Enter our photo contest! Each month, Brian Skerry will lead our team of judges to select a winner, who will receive a copy of Brian’s book Ocean Soul.

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO”. Find out more here.

Be sure to check our our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll continue to post honorable mentions from the photo contest and other great ocean photography.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

A global map of commercial shipping, showing relative density (in color) against a black background. Ship ballast water discharge is one of the main ways invasive marine species are introduced. Courtesy of http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/globalmarine/impacts
A global map of commercial shipping, showing relative density (in color) against a black background. Ship ballast water discharge is one of the main ways invasive marine species are introduced. Courtesy of http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/globalmarine/impacts
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When More is not Merrier: Shifting Baselines and Invasive Species

Categories: Guest Posters

Since the early 1980’s my family has been vacationing along the St. Lawrence River in upstate New   York. We’d head up year after year to relax in the beautiful wilderness, and though I was too young to know it at the time, I was witnessing one of the worst ecological invasions of our time. The dreaded zebra mussel, now in Massachusetts, was marching through the great lakes, clearing the water of its precious plankton and forever changing the ecosystem.

But for me, the zebra mussel was just a normal part of the river while I was growing up. I thought the environment seemed healthy enough – there were birds to be seen and fish to be caught. That was because I hadn’t seen the river before the zebra mussel, they’d always been there, that was my baseline. My parents certainly remember a different river, and from their time to mine the baseline had shifted.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I saw the effect of a new invasive species in that same river, the round goby fish. I’d cast a reel and catch this funny looking bottom-feeder on rare occasions. But lately I’ve caught more and more gobies. Now I just expect them as part of the ecosystem, and one day when my kids fish in the St. Lawrence, their baseline will be filled with gobies.

The trouble is that our shifting baselines are dangerous: they cloud our idea of what’s “normal”, and they don’t allow us to see the gradual decline in the environment around us. Be it climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, or invasive species, it can be tough to tell what “normal” used to look like.

But invasive species actually provide us with an interesting case. On one hand, if they’ve been around long enough we way think of them as part of the native community (like I did with the zebra mussel). Take, for example, the common periwinkle, Littorina littorea, an invasive species that has been around since the mid 1800’s. They’ve been here so long and they are so ubiquitous that until recently scientists have even debated whether they’re native or invasive. Surely you’ve seen these snails blanketing our rocky shores, and you too may not have thought much of them. But what did our beaches look like before they were here?

On the other hand, some species invasions allow us to witness substantial environmental changes in just a few years, and they can demonstrate to us the fragility of our ecosystems. Like the European shrimp, Palaemon elegans, which was found in Salem Sound just a couple years ago. They eat a lot of other small crustaceans, potentially shifting community interactions, and they are likely to spread rapidly along the coasts. They have already been reported in Maine, Boston Harbor, and in Rhode Island. We’ll actually be able to witness the effects of this invader in just a short while, though we can’t yet predict the severity of the impact they’ll have on native species.

With all of this change it can be easy to lose track of what’s happening in our New England waters, which is why documenting species introductions and the distributional changes of those invaders is so important. A local scientist leading the effort to detect invaders is Dr. Judy Pederson from the MIT Sea Grant College Program. Every few years she and a team of scientists perform surveys to look at the organisms (mostly attached to docks) along New England coastlines. She notes the value of a citizen monitoring program that she says has worked very well for recording invasive species.

“Part of what we do is document the presence and absence of species and their movements up and down the coast,” she told me. “But once an invasive species is found in the marine environment, it’s almost impossible to eliminate.” Since they’re so tough to get rid of, Dr. Pederson also works on helping to control the initial introduction of invaders. The most widely reported vector for spreading invasive species is the discharge of ship ballast water from foreign ports. Microscopic larvae (part of the plankton) taken into ballast water across the ocean often get released into new coastal waters where they may metamorphose and ultimately thrive. But everyday ocean-using citizens spread organisms too, which is why Dr. Pederson has worked to educate divers and boaters about cleaning their equipment after using it, lest they involuntarily transfer species to new places.

It’s a noble effort, tackling such a daunting and complicated problem. Some invasive species are even displacing previous invaders. Remember the European green crab, Carcinus maenas, whose voracious appetite isn’t very easily satiated? Though they are a menace, in some areas even these crabs are being pushed around by a relatively new (1988) invader, the Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus. I can’t turn over a rock at low tide without finding a few of these pugnacious little guys.

In fact, Dr. Pederson had some sobering stats: “About 15% of the species we find during our surveys are non-native, but they can be 40% of the biomass at some locations.” And the increasing effects of climate change are not likely to ease the trouble. As we’ve seen recently, the distributions of native species have been shifting, introducing New Englanders to a host of new organisms. But invaders are on the move too. The devastating lionfish has been found as far north as Narragansett Bay, and is already on the way to becoming an ecological disaster. With no known predators and native communities that aren’t adapted to recognize them as a threat, lionfish can quickly wipe out the biodiversity of entire ecosystems.

Maybe we can’t get rid of the invasive species that have taken up residence here, but without the knowledge of what used to be, we may not notice the slow changes happening all around us. We need to stay vigilant, and you can help keep a watchful eye on our oceans to remind us of how our baselines are always changing.

Casey Diederich is a 5th year PhD candidate in Tuft’s University’s Biology Department, and is conducting his research on slipper-shell snails. We are thrilled to have Casey guest blogging for us about some of the more fascinating plants and animals in our ocean. – Ed.

Lined Seahorse- Hippocampus erectus
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Cool Fish, Hot Water: Seahorses Swim North

Categories: Ocean Oddities

New England’s ocean is getting warmer—and the fish are headed north.

In 2012, water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine reached record high temperatures. NOAA reports that sea surface temperatures in some areas were as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit above long-term averages, while deep waters were about 3 degrees  higher than average. Temperatures in the first half of 2013 were less extreme, but remained unusually warm. The high temperatures of the past two years aren’t a new development, either—the Gulf of Maine has experienced a long-term warming trend for well over a century.

While these balmy temperatures may be nice for swimmers and surfers, their effect on marine life might not be as positive. The impacts of climate change on the health of marine species are still uncertain, although scientists are beginning to understand how warmer temperatures cause plankton to bloom earlier, help invasive species like green crabs thrive, may cause fish to grow to smaller sizes, and push commercially important species like cod to cooler, deeper waters.

One effect of warming waters in New England has been very clear, though. As ocean temperatures around Cape Cod and in the Gulf of Maine reach record highs, fishermen have started to notice some unusual species on their lines and in their nets—species more typical of warmer waters in the mid-Atlantic or even the tropical ecosystem of the Caribbean. Over the next several posts in this series, we’ll introduce you to some of these new faces.

Our first species—perhaps the most startling example of a once-subtropical species showing up in the Gulf of Maine—is the common seahorse, Hippocampus erectus (also known as Hippocampus hudsonius). Although their range does extend as far north as Nova Scotia, these familiar fish were once only common from the Chesapeake Bay to the Venezuelan coast, and were almost never found in the Gulf of Maine. Most people probably associate these fish with snorkeling on a reef or the tropical tank at the aquarium. But last summer, at least one Maine lobsterman, David Cousens, pulled up several seahorses in his lobster traps—something he’d never seen before.

The evidence for warm-water fish species moving north isn’t just anecdotal. Several scientific studies over the past five years have shown strong evidence that fish distribution is changing in response to climate change. In 2009, scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service tracked the center points of the populations of 36 fish stocks and found that between 1968 and 2007, nearly all of these species moved north or shifted to deeper water. In 2012, a group of scientists developed an index called the Mean Temperature of Catch, or MTC, which is calculated as the average “preferred temperature” of the species caught in an area. Worldwide, MTC has increased steadily since at least the 1970s, suggesting that global fisheries are catching more species that prefer warmer water.

Most recently, an article published in Science shows that the direction and speed at which the distribution of species changes closely tracks the direction and speed of the effects of climate change. This does not always mean that species move north—off California, for example, stronger winds have pushed cooler waters south, and fish have moved south, too—but it does mean that marine species are redistributing to follow cooler water as temperatures change. In New England, cooler waters are moving north and offshore, and that’s where the fish are headed, too.

Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we introduce you to some of the species that have started calling New England home as our water temperatures rise. These profiles will just skim the surface of the fish moving in to this region—everything from grouper to vivid tropical species like filefish has been spotted in this area in the past few years, and these changes may just be beginning. Whether a beachgoer, a diver, or a fisherman, we will all have to adapt to the changing environment and new species in the Gulf of Maine.