The overwhelming consensus of scientists worldwide is that climate change is not only real, but also underway with a vengeance and likely irreversible even if we were to drastically reduce emissions today. It’s time to get serious about preparing for the inevitable changes.
Most discussion on the South Coast has focused on sea level rise and its impact on the coastal communities along Buzzards and Mt. Hope Bays. We’re at the stage of asking the most basic questions.
Will the New Bedford/Fairhaven hurricane barrier buy some time for those communities?
What will resiliency plans for historic coastal villages like Padanaram, Marion, and Mattapoisett look like? How far up the Taunton River will these changes be felt?
Changes in growing conditions are also a matter of concern. Will the cranberry industry continue to migrate to Canada? Might Westport’s dairy farms and Little Compton’s potato farms someday host orange groves?
This is fanciful speculation, but changes offshore are occurring right now and we are already feeling the impact. Given New Bedford’s perpetual ranking as the nation’s most valuable fishing port (with annual landings valued at $322 million in 2015), this issue has immediate and tangible economic repercussions.
For some insight, I spoke with Sarah Smith, a social scientist at the Fisheries Solutions Center at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Q: Has climate change already affected local fishermen?
A: There is strong evidence that climate change is already affecting the fish and shellfish stocks on which New Bedford’s fishing industry has relied for centuries.
The waters off New England, including Georges Bank, have experienced temperatures well above average in the last several years, driving cod stocks farther north and offshore in search of the colder temperatures they prefer, and making them harder for fishermen to find and to catch.
A recent study also found that warmer waters were making it harder for cod, which have been significantly overfished, to rebound to sustainable levels.
Likewise, the once-thriving lobster fishery in southern New England has been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. Warmer temperatures in this region have risen above the threshold for lobsters, leading to an increase in shell disease and die-offs. Farther north off the coast of Maine, lobsters are thriving precisely because waters have warmed to an ideal temperature.
If water temperatures continue to rise as a result of global climate change, even Maine could someday face the same threats to its lobster population as our lobsters are experiencing.
Q: New Bedford fishermen make most of their money off of scallops. How have they been affected?
A: In New Bedford, sea scallops are by far the most valuable resource, making up roughly three-quarters of the total value of the city’s fishery. While presently sea scallops are thriving, a recent report by several NOAA scientists assessed the vulnerability of scallops to climate change as “high.”
This species is threatened by the effects of climate change. They are much less mobile than
fish species and are unable to pick up and move north, so they cannot adjust by moving to cooler waters. A more significant threat for scallops is ocean acidification, driven by an increase in carbon concentrations in the ocean and exacerbated by warming waters.
This process weakens scallops’ shells and affects the health of their larvae. This second threat is much more uncertain, as we are only just learning about the impacts of ocean acidification, but it could potentially be devastating.
Q: Is there a silver lining to any of this?
A: While some cold water species either move north or are adversely affected, they have been replaced by several warm water species of fish that are now increasingly abundant in the waters off of southern New England. Fish like black sea bass, summer flounder, and Atlantic croaker have been moving northward from the Mid-Atlantic and have become more plentiful off our shores.
Q: What kinds of positive changes can be made in the face of this massive shift we’re facing?
A: Fishermen in our region have historically been very adaptive, targeting whatever fish or shellfish stocks were most abundant in a given season. They may have to become so again, expanding their operations to include some of these emerging species.
Seafood consumers will have to be adaptive as well, expanding our palates to move beyond cod to plentiful yet under-appreciated fish such as dogfish, pollock, scup, and redfish.
Fishery managers have an important role to play in ensuring stock assessments and management measures take climate change effects into account, and in reviewing statewide allocations for species like black sea bass to ensure they reflect current conditions. Our local research institutions like UMass’ SMAST have a role to play in providing new science to help managers to understand the impacts of climate change on fish stocks.