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As the Atlantic Ocean warms, fisheries scramble to adapt

One impact of greenhouse gas emissions is the warming ocean, with hot spots in the North Atlantic. As fish species respond by moving farther north, expanding and shrinking their ranges, the rules about what can be fished, where and how much are lagging behind the speed of change.

Fishermen find innovative ways to make ends meet with regulations slow to change

Cape Cod got its name for the abundance of cod off the shores of Massachusetts, but it wouldn't be an apt namesake today.

First, the once populous fish was decimated by decades of Atlantic overfishing, which was also felt acutely in Newfoundland. Now, climate change is further complicating that, as different fish species show up in Gulf of Maine waters warming more quickly than the global average.

What On Earth54:02How warming oceans are changing Atlantic fisheries

"Changes are hard on everybody, and they're hard on communities as well. And so Atlantic cod presents sort of the cultural, iconic challenges for New England," said Jon Hare, director of scientific programs for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries in Woods Hole, Mass.

There are three main factors contributing to the rapid rate of warming in the northwest Atlantic, according to Hare:

  • The ocean is warming.
  • The warm Gulf Stream current from the tropics is heading farther north.
  • Cold water circulating from the north is decreasing.

Ocean surface temperatures have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius since the turn of the 20th century, with parts of the North Atlantic warming more quickly than the global average. The Gulf of Maine, between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, is a hot spot.

I've been telling people that June is the new July.

– Eric Hesse, fishery worker

According to nearly 60 years of monitoring from NOAA Fisheries, fish are feeling the impacts, responding in ways that change the composition of what species are found where and when. Off of Cape Cod, that looks like species such as black sea bass moving in and lobster moving on.

Some fishery workers say the fish are moving at a faster rate than regulations about what can be fished, where and in what quantities. This directly affects their livelihoods, and in turn what does — or does not — make it onto people's dinner plates.

Fish on the move

Eric Hesse, now 58, started fishing off the shores of Cape Cod in the mid-1980s for cod, haddock, and bluefin tuna. Recently, he's noticed the summer season for bluefin tuna is starting earlier.

"I've been telling people that June is the new July," said Hesse.

Hesse recalls he could still make a decent living when he first started fishing, even though the population of cod had already declined. Now, he worries changes in the warming ocean may not allow for the species to rebound.

"I'm not here to say that I'm the victim of climate change, but I think we've put ourselves in a bad position," said Hesse.

Hesse now makes up the shortfall in his income by using his fishing gear to help research organizations like NOAA monitor fish stocks in the Atlantic. Where he used to see cod before, now he sees spiny dogfish, a small shark he said is mostly exported to Europe because the market hasn't taken off in New England.

"They just haven't embraced the idea of using a species that is abundant here and fresh and just doesn't have the same kind of flesh as a flaky white cod," he said.

Caught up in bureaucracy

Ocean warming means one species might expand its range, another could contract and another might shift to a different area altogether. Some species respond to the warming ocean by becoming more abundant, while others are less productive.

It's a phenomenon Hare has witnessed both as a scientist and in his personal life. He remembers catching a black sea bass off Martha's Vineyard decades ago, bringing it to the local fish market and being greeted by excitement at the novelty of his catch.

"Now after 40 years, you can't not catch a black sea bass around here. I think it's one of the most abundant species in the area," said Hare.

As the ocean has warmed, black sea bass have followed their "preferred temperature" north and become more abundant. As a result, the species has simply expanded where it lives, rather than shifting its range north altogether.

That has the fish caught up in bureaucracy.

In the United States, regional rules spell out which species can be caught, how many, and where they can be landed — taken to a port and sold. Quotas are allocated to different states: North Carolina and Maryland, for example, have allocations of black sea bass, but Massachusetts has none. In Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans sets allocations of commercial fishery quotas federally.

Hare said to allocate part of the quota to Massachusetts would require taking it away from states farther south.

"It's created this tension in the fisheries management system whereby everyone recognizes that the allocations are not working. But to change the allocations, you have to take something away from somebody and give it to somebody else, which is a very hard thing to do," said Hare.

Fish don't follow our borders

Cape Cod is at the southernmost part of the Gulf of Maine, which reaches Nova Scotia at its northernmost point. Alain d'Entremont is president of Scotia Harvest, a seafood company in Digby, N.S., where the Gulf of Maine meets the Bay of Fundy. From a family of fishermen, d'Entremont, now 38, has observed changes in the ocean.

While blackbelly rosefish have shown up off the coast of Nova Scotia over the past few decades of his career, now "you pretty much can't make a trip without catching some," he said. Currently, there is no rule allowing harvesters to land blackbelly rosefish, so d'Entremont's vessels are forced to discard them when they're caught in their nets, which he thinks is a lost opportunity to gather information that could inform potential new fisheries.

He used to see spiny dogfish for part of the year but now, he said, his crew see them any time of year in more locations. When dogfish show up in their nets, "it's just work" to haul them up only to throw them out, he said.

In an emailed statement to What On Earth, DFO said it is rethinking its approach to management, including a working group on climate change and marine species distribution, in partnership with NOAA. But d'Entremont said he worries DFO is lagging behind on research and keeping regulations up-to-speed with the warming Atlantic Ocean.

"With all the changes we're seeing in the ocean … we need to manage our fisheries differently than we used to," said d'Entremont.

A man with a beard and ball cap stands in front of a harbour.

"We have to understand that certain fish species are going to be winners and certain fish species are going to be losers. Now, I hope that the commercially valuable species are the winners, but I don't necessarily think that we get to pick."

Hare said this is playing out in the U.S. with lobster, which used to be a lucrative fishery off the shores of Cape Cod. As it moved north to Maine, another opportunity presented itself: Jonah crab, which had been historically discarded. Now, Hare said, there's a market for it.

Lobster is on the move north

Lobster's move north has worked out well for Canada, where the shellfish is the country's most valuable seafood export.

"We're seeing increased amounts of lobster catches in the Atlantic region," said Helen Gurney-Smith, a research scientist with DFO based in St. Andrews, N.B.

A smiling woman wearing a life jacket in a boat handles an Atlantic sea scallop.

Her research examines how climate change will affect lobster, as well as scallops, another important commercial species in Atlantic Canada. By exposing lobster to higher temperatures and ocean acidification in the lab, Gurney-Smith and her team hope to find out how these climate impacts in the ocean will affect reproduction and overall population.

She cautions that without enough research and data, Canada could make the wrong decisions about how to adapt fisheries to global warming.

"In general terms, when we look at the observed impacts of climate change related to warming waters, what we're seeing is this poleward shift of marine species," said Gurney-Smith. While some might turn out to be commercially viable, giving Canada short-term benefits, "over the long term, species will continue to move," she said.

Where regulations are slow, fishers adapt

Some fishermen are coming up with solutions of their own. Research shows that some harvesters are getting creative by travelling farther to find fish, switching which ports they work from and fishing for different species in response to changes in the Atlantic Ocean. Others are finding new approaches in selling their catch to make more and waste less.

Tracy Sylvester grew up on Cape Cod and started her career fishing in Sitka, Alaska. She and her partner decided to split their time between Alaska and Massachusetts, where they opened a store in Falmouth, Cape Cod, to sell Alaskan fish.

"Flash-freezing it, vacuum-sealing it, stabilizes it and basically stops the clock right at the dock on the fish," said Sylvester. "It really helps to reduce waste."

A beach, sand dunes and the Atlantic ocean are depicted on an overcast day.

It's a model she's working on with local fishermen as well to make their catch go further, which she said also helps them get more money for what they're landing. But she says it can be a hard sell on Cape Cod, where tourists expect to eat fresh fish.

"But they don't understand that most of the fish in the case is not local and it's not really fresh. So we're trying to bring some transparency to that," she said.

She is also bringing frozen products such as chowder and fish cakes to the shop, made from locally caught fish – another way to use fish without an immediate buyer.

People on vacation who stop by her store might not be eager to chat about climate change, she said, but Sylvester treads lightly, keeping conversations positive.

"They don't …want to think about climate change when they're here as tourists. But food is one way that we can show them solutions. Look, these are fishermen working together."

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