Earlier issues of Waypoints highlight how warming ocean temperatures, driven by climate change, are changing physical and ecological conditions in the Gulf of Maine. This next segment begins an investigation into the impacts of these changes on the regulatory, economic, and social dimensions of emerging fisheries in the Gulf of Maine.
Sightings of new and unusual warm water fish species are bringing the impacts of climate change closer to home for many New England fishermen. As ocean temperatures continue to rise, the Gulf of Maine has become more suitable to new species, opening up new fishing opportunities for fishermen -- if they and the regulatory system can adapt.
Among the early indicators of long-term climate change, distributions of fish populations along the Atlantic coast are shifting northward. Since the 1990s, Mid-Atlantic species like black sea bass, butterfish, and summer flounder have been sporadically appearing in the Gulf of Maine. More recently however, these species and several others are appearing with increasing frequency. If last year's record-breaking ocean heat wave is any indication, these shifts should only continue to accelerate.
But fully realizing these new fishing opportunities may be complicated. While these new fisheries signal promising economic opportunities that can offset recent declines in historical fisheries such as cod, they also present a range of social, economic, and regulatory challenges. Overcoming these challenges not only tries the flexibility of the current management system, but it also tests the fishing industry's ability to adapt to such rapidly changing conditions.
As it stands, the current management system could potentially hamper New England fishermen's efforts to capitalize on emerging fisheries. The management process depends on the underlying scientific body of knowledge for its decision-making and recommendations, and currently this scientific process lags behind fishermen's observations of the ecosystem. Similarly, scientists require a more complete understanding of changing species distributions. For example, a better understanding of precisely how species distributions are shifting, whether they are splitting, expanding, or contracting, will help identify or redefine new stock areas. This information provides for more accurate stock assessments and recommended harvest levels. Ultimately, this new science will help to better inform management decisions, but it could provide for near-term frustration as industry seeks to benefit economically from thenewcomers.
Another fundamental regulatory obstacle remains access to permits, in particular black sea bass and summer flounder. Both of these species have significant economic potential in New England if population densities continue to shift northward (as they are highly marketable and show strong ex-vessel prices). However, because of how resource access is apportioned, New England fishermen are constrained by how much they can harvest and where they are allowed to land their catch.
In the black sea bass and summer flounder fisheries, the current permitting structure allocates Atlantic states from North Carolina to Maine a proportion of quota based on historical landings. But because these fisheries have never previously existed in New England, these states are allocated small proportions of the annual quota. On top of these restrictions, both fisheries are currently closed to new entrants, thereby leaving just 13 black sea bass and 30 summer flounder permits collectively associated with vessels homeported in Maine. A critcal next step for managers will be to reexamine how state-by-state quotas are determined and how they may be adjusted to better reflect the current species migrations.
As populations shift north and cross management boundaries, they force regional management councils to reevaluate each council's management responsibilities. Joint fishery management across councils may become more common -- and necessary. Other potential options include splitting or transitioning management responsibilities between councils. Findings from a recent study suggest that the development of new fisheries may already be lagging as a result of economic and regulatory constraints.
For fishermen seeking to offset recent losses in the New England groundfish fishery, access to emergent fisheries could be an invaluable opportunity. The management system will do well to objectively review how the harvest rights are apportioned under such a shifting regime, as a way to help ease current constraints on New England fishermen and create a more flexible management system for the future.
Read the full report: Preparing for Emerging Fisheries: An Overview of Mid-Atlantic Stocks on the Move