Rhode Island

Fishermen face shutdowns as warming hurts species

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Fisheries regulators and the fishing industry are grappling with the possibility that some once-profitable species that have been declining due to climate change may not come back.

Several marketable species caught by US fishermen are subject to quota cuts, seasonal closures and other restrictions as populations have declined and waters have warmed. In some cases, such as bottom fishing for species like Northeast flounder, the changing environment has made it harder for fish to recover from years of overfishing that has already weighed on populations.

Officials in Alaska have canceled the fall harvest of red king crab in Bristol Bay and the winter harvest of snow crab, dealing a blow to the Bering Sea crab industry, which is sometimes worth more than $200 million a year, as populations confront decreased due to warming of the water. The Atlantic cod fishery, once New England’s vital industry, is now essentially closed. But even with depleted populations at risk from climate change, it’s rare for regulators to shut down a fishery entirely, as they are considering for New England shrimp.

The northern shrimp, once a seafood delicacy, has been subject to a moratorium on fishing since 2014. Scientists believe that warming water is wiping out their populations and they won’t come back. As a result, the Atlantic Ocean Fisheries Regulatory Commission is now considering making this moratorium permanent, essentially ending the centuries-old shrimp harvest.

It’s a powerful siren for several species caught by US fishermen that regulators say are on the brink. Others include soft-shell clams, winter flounder, Alaskan snow crab, and chinook salmon.

It’s hard to say how many fisheries are threatened primarily by warming waters, but further cuts and closures are likely in the future as climate change worsens, said Malin Pinsky, director of the graduate program in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University.

“This pattern of climate change and how it’s unfolding in communities and coastal economies is something we need to get used to,” Pinsky said. “Many years are pushing us out of what we have experienced historically, and we will continue to monitor these other novel conditions over the years.”

While it’s unclear if climate change was ever the dominant factor in the permanent closure of any US fishery, global warming is a key reason several once-robust fisheries are in increasingly poor health and have been regulated more aggressively in recent years. Warming temperatures introduce new predators, cause species to shift their population center north, or make it harder for them to grow to maturity, scientists said.

In the case of the northern shrimp, scientists and regulators at a meeting in August said the population has not recovered after nearly a decade without commercial fishing. Regulators will reconsider the possibility of a permanent moratorium this winter, said Dustin Colson Leaning, coordinator for fisheries management plans at the Atlantic States Commission. Another approach could be for the Commission to give up control of the fisheries, he said.

The shrimp prefer cold temperatures, but the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most oceans. Scientists say warming waters have also brought new predators to the Gulf.

But in Maine, where the cold-water shrimp fishery is based, fishermen have tried to argue that shrimp abundance is cyclical and any move to permanently end the fishery is premature.

“I want to look to the future. Losing shrimp is not unprecedented. We went through it in the ’50s, we went through it in the ’70s, we had a rough time in the ’90s,” said Vincent Balzano, a Portland shrimp fisherman. “They came back.”

Another endangered species is the winter flounder, which was once much sought after by fishermen in southern New England. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has described the fish on Georges Bank, a key fishing area, as “well below target population levels.” Scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management wrote in a report last year that the fish were struggling to mature “due to increased predation associated with warming winters.”

On the West Coast, the Chinook salmon is on the brink of extinction due to climate change, NOAA reported. Drought has worsened the fish’s prospects in California at the southern end of its range, scientists said.

Fishermen on the East Coast from Virginia to Maine have been digging scallops out of tidal mud for centuries, and they’re a staple at seafood restaurants. They are used for chowder and fried clam dishes and are sometimes referred to as “steamers”.

However, the mussel harvest fell from about 3.5 million pounds (1.6 million kilograms) in 2010 to 2.1 million pounds (950,000 kilograms) in 2020 as the industry deals with an aging workforce and increasing competition from predators such as crabs and fight worms. Scientists have linked the growing threat from predators to warming waters.

The 2020 catch in Maine, where the most mussels are harvested, was the smallest in more than 90 years. And the 2021 catch still fell short of typical catches from the 2000s, which were consistently close to 2 million pounds (907,000 kilograms) or more.

It’s difficult to predict what the 2022 mussel harvest will be like, but the industry remains threatened by the growing presence of invasive green crabs, said Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias. Native to Europe, the clam-eating crabs arrived in the US about 200 years ago and have increased in population as the waters have warmed.

“Compared to 2020, there seems to have been a ton more green crab that settled,” Beal said. “It’s not a good omen.”

One challenge in managing fisheries that are declining due to warming waters is that regulators rely on historical data to set quotas and other regulations, said Lisa Kerr, a senior researcher at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland , Maine. Scientists and regulators are learning that some fish stocks simply aren’t able to return to the levels of productivity they were 40 years ago, she said.

Back then, US fishermen typically caught more than 100 million pounds (45.4 million kilograms) of Atlantic cod a year. Now they typically catch less than 2 million pounds (907,000 kilograms) as overfishing and environmental changes have prevented populations from returning to historical levels.

The future of management of species in such poor condition may require accepting the possibility that full recovery is impossible, Kerr said.

“It’s really a reset of expectations,” she said. “We’re starting to see targets that are more closely aligned but below a lower overall target.”

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Follow Patrick Whittle on Twitter: @pxwhittle

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