Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineIn recent weeks, we learned more sobering news for New England’s cod population. A paper published in Science detailed how rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are reducing cod’s productivity and impacting – negatively – the long-term rebuilding potential of New England’s iconic groundfish. The paper confirmed both the theoretical predictions associated with climate change and the recent scientific federal, state, and Canadian trawl surveys that reported a record-low number of cod caught in recent months.

To be clear, the Science authors do not conclude that ocean temperature changes associated with climate change have caused the collapse of cod. We have management-approved overfishing of cod to thank for that.

What rising ocean temperatures do seem to be doing, according to the Science paper, is dramatically changing the productivity of the remaining cod stocks. This makes it more difficult for cod to recover from overfishing today than at any other time in history, and perhaps reduces the ultimate recovery potential even if all fishing were halted. Stock assessments conducted without taking these productivity reductions into full account will dramatically overestimate cod populations and, in turn, fishing quotas.

The Science paper is potentially very important, with major implications for fishing limits on cod for decades to come, But stock assessment scientists have warned for years that their recent models were likely overestimating the amount of cod actually in the water – and the corresponding fishing pressure the stock could withstand. Unfortunately, those warnings have fallen on deaf ears at the New England Fishery Management Council.

In fact, the managers at the Council, dominated by fishermen and state fisheries directors with short-term economic agendas, could hardly have done more than they already have to jeopardize Atlantic cod’s future—climate change or not.

Overfishing, a Weakened Gene Pool, and the Loss of Productive Female Fish

As a result of chronic overfishing, New England’s cod population is likely facing what geneticists call a “population bottleneck,” meaning that the diversity of the remaining cod gene pool is now so greatly reduced that the fish that are left are less resilient to environmental stresses like increasing sea temperatures.

Overfishing has also caused the collapse of the age structure of the cod populations by removing almost all of the larger, more reproductive females (also known as the Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Females, or BOFFFS). Scientists have previously warned that losing these old spawners is a problem for cod productivity, but this new research suggests that the potential damage from their elimination may be significantly greater than imagined as a result of poor, climate change–related ecological conditions.

The Science paper hypothesizes that an underlying factor in the productivity decline of cod this past decade was the correlation between extremely warm spikes in ocean temperatures and the drop in zooplankton species that are critical to the survival of larval cod. With fewer zooplankton, fewer cod larvae make it to their first birthday.

The impacts of this zooplankton decline on cod productivity, however, could be exacerbated by the loss of the BOFFFs. Here’s why:

Cod start to spawn at three to four years old, but young females produce significantly fewer and weaker eggs and cod larvae than their older counterparts. Those elder female fish, on the other hand, produce larger, more viable eggs – sometimes exponentially more healthy eggs – over longer periods of time. If the older female cod population had still been plentiful, they might have produced larvae more capable of surviving variations in zooplankton abundance.

Perhaps the continued presence of larger, older, spawning females to the south of New England (where there is no commercial cod fishery) is one of the reasons that the cod fishery in the nearby warm waters off New Jersey is healthier now than it has been in recent history.

The Cod Aren’t Completely Cooked Yet: Four Potential Solutions

Cod have been in trouble since the 1990s, and now climate change is magnifying these troubles. This new reality, however, is not cause for us to throw in the towel. There are actions that our fishery managers can take now that will make a difference.

First, large cod habitat areas have to be closed to fishingpermanently. This is the only way to protect the large females and increase their number. Designating cod refuges such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area as a marine national monument will remove the temptation for fishery councils – always under pressure to provide access to fish – to reopen them in the future.

Such monuments would also sustain a critical marine laboratory where more of these complex interactions between cod and our changing ocean environment can be studied and understood.

Second, managers need to gain a better understanding of the cod populations south of Cape Cod. While it is well and good to land “monster” female cod on recreational boat trips, those fish may be the key to re-populating Georges Bank. Caution, rather than a free-for-all, is the best course of action until the patterns of movement of those cod populations, as related to ocean temperature increases, are better understood.

Third, as observed in the Science paper, stock assessment models as well as guidance from the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee must start incorporating more ecosystem variables and reflecting a more appropriate level of scientific precaution in the face of the reality of climate change shifts. Enough talk about scientific uncertainty and ecosystem-based fisheries management; action is needed, and science should have the lead in guiding that action.

Finally, the importance of funding data collection and fishery science is evident from this important Science paper, which was supported by private, philanthropic dollars. NOAA should be undertaking this sort of work – but it is not in a position to even provide adequate and timely stock assessments, because limited funding forces the agency to use the existing outdated models.

NOAA’s funding limitations are constraining both collection of the essential field data needed to understand our changing world as well as the analysis of that data into meaningful and appropriate management advice. If Congress can find $33 million to give fishermen for the most recent “groundfish disaster,” it ought to be able to find money to prevent such avoidable disasters in the future.

Ultimately, the Science paper shines some much needed light on our climate change–related fishery issues in New England, but we can’t let it overshadow decades of mismanagement or justify a fatalistic attitude toward cod rebuilding. Steps can and must be taken, and fishery managers are still on the hook for the success or failure of our current and future cod stocks.

Governor Baker: The People Have Spoken, and They Want a Marine National Monument

The people of New England, and especially Massachusetts, have spoken – and they want a Marine National Monument in the Atlantic.

More than 160,000 people have signed their name in support of a monument designation, including over 10,000 from Massachusetts alone. We’ve received public letters of support from coastal businesses, faith-based organizations, and aquaria. And more than 200 U.S. marine scientists, including the most prominent marine ecologists in the region, have stated that the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts hold special ecological value and need permanent protection as national monuments. There is no dispute about the scientific importance or vulnerability of these areas.

Our coalition said: Here’s the science; here’s what’s at stake; here are the risks to these incredible habitats. We asked the public to stand with us in support for permanent protection, and overwhelmingly, they have said – and keep saying – “yes.”

They showed up at an event at the New England Aquarium in the week before Labor Day (when they could have been doing many other things) to learn about these places and what makes them so important. They signed comment cards, and took home buttons and posters to share with colleagues and friends to spread the word. And then they showed up again, when NOAA held a town hall meeting for the express purpose of gathering public feedback. And NOAA is still accepting public comment. The Cashes Ledge Area has been studied for over ten years in a public forum. If that’s not public process, what is?

The Obama Administration should be lauded for seeking to take the steps necessary to protect critical ocean habitats from human threats – which include more than threats from fishing – and therefore require more comprehensive protection than a fishery management council has to offer. A monument is necessary to protect the health of our ocean, restore its natural productivity, and make it resilient to climate change impacts, already putting stress on iconic fish like Atlantic cod.

New Englanders are champions and leaders for the ocean, as evidenced by our commitment to drafting the first-in-the-nation regional ocean plan, due out next year. This plan will make great strides for managing the region’s ocean resources over the long term but it is not at all clear if and when this plan would consider permanent and full habitat protection of vitally important ecological areas like Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts.

A marine monument designation is not an overreach of power, but rather exactly what the Antiquities Act was created to do. These areas are in federal waters and the President has critical stewardship obligations for those resources that transcend fisheries politics. Economically, scientifically, and morally, saving our ocean treasures makes sense. We hope you’ll come to agree with the thousands of people and businesses in Massachusetts who have already stood up for our future.

Setting the Record Straight: Marine Monuments Have a Long, Proud Legacy

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest at Cashes LedgeFormer Conservation Law Foundation Staff Attorney Roger Fleming, who is now a part of the Oceans litigation team at EarthJustice, details how the National Monument establishment process through the Antiquities Act serves the public’s interest. 

By Roger Fleming

One hundred-nine years ago this week President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monument, protecting the magnificent Devil’s Tower formation in Wyoming. Since then, sixteen presidents – eight from each party — have used the power granted by Congress in the Antiquities Act to create more than 115 monuments protecting the nation’s natural and historic heritage on land and at sea, from the Statue of Liberty to the Marianas Trench.

Now we have a chance to see that proud tradition in action again to protect a national treasure right here in our backyard with a Marine National Monument off New England’s coast. On September 15, 2015, NOAA hosted a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to discuss the possible establishment of a monument that could include deep sea Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge. Scientists have identified these areas as deserving of special protection due to unique undersea terrain and nutrient upwelling that supports cold water coral gardens, our largest cold water kelp forest, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and more.

A broad coalition of scientists, small business owners, fishermen, faith groups, civic leaders, and conservationists have sent a clear message that we need to save these ecologically important places before irreparable damage is done, so that future generations can enjoy their unimaginable beauty and a healthier marine environment. That is exactly what the Antiquities Act is intended to do.

Unfortunately, opponents in the fishing industry have attempted to muddy the waters with unfounded concerns about the “process” being used to provide protection for these areas.

Opponents who spoke at NOAA’s town hall event argued that the monument designation process is undemocratic, and that decisions about how to manage these areas should be left to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region’s federal waters.

Many who gave comment also complained about a lack of opportunity for public comment on the monument designation. Let that sink in for a moment: complaints about a lack of public comment were made while giving public comment.

Let’s set the record straight on a few things.

First, the monuments process is democratic.

President Obama has the authority to establish permanent protection of these areas through designation of a monument under the Antiquities Act. This Act is another tool provided to the democratically-elected president by our democratically-elected Congress to preserve areas identified as historic landmarks and areas of scientific interest before it is too late – before the opportunity to save a valuable resource is lost. This president’s predecessor, George W. Bush, created four monuments in the Pacific Ocean covering a total of 860,000 square kilometers. None exist in the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, there has been—and continues to be—public input into the process.

Already in this nascent proposal for a new marine monument there has been a town hall meeting where anyone wishing to do so was given the opportunity to speak and an ongoing public comment period through which over 160,000 people have already written in support of saving these important places. Arguably, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to provide opportunities to be heard on a proposal, in circumstances where it is not at all required to by law.

Leading up to the monument proposal, there were years of study of these areas and numerous opportunities for the public and other stakeholders to provide relevant scientific, economic, and other information, and to otherwise make their views known as possible protections were discussed in different venues, including the fishery management process.  Because the President’s decision must be based on science, this will all be considered.

Third, the New England Fishery Management Council has a checkered history regarding public and scientific involvement, and an even worse record as a steward of the public’s ocean resources.

The fishery management process remains dominated by the fishing industry and fails to adequately consider broader public interests. One need only look to the status of New England’s iconic fish species, the Atlantic cod, for evidence of this. Cod stocks have collapsed and the region’s groundfishing sector was declared a disaster, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The record clearly shows that New England’s Council ignored repeated warnings from science about the deteriorating condition of cod stocks until it was far too late. Just last year more than a hundred-forty scientists and more than 150,000 members of public implored the council to protect more habitat for these and other depleted fish. But the Council instead voted to slash the amount of essential fish habitat protected by more than 60 percent.

The Council did succeed in identifying the ecological, economic, and social importance of the Cashes Ledge Closed area, and has closed the area to most bottom fishing. However, this action came only after an earlier vote to strip existing protections from that area. Further, the limited protections in place leave nearly all of the area open to other fishing, including the East Coast’s largest fishing vessels – industrial midwater trawlers – which are capable of stripping the area of essential forage fish, catching non-targeted fish, mammals and other marine animals as bycatch, and are known to contact the bottom when fishing. The protections in place are not permanent and could be removed at any time through the fishery management process.

Similarly, the New England canyons and seamounts have been identified by the Council as important ecological areas but they have received very few protections which are not worthy of their unique ecological importance.

Finally, this is not just about fishing.

New England’s “Fishery Management” Council has no authority to address other potential threats that could surface for the area, such as marine mining, drilling, or other industrial activity. Unlike the tenuous, partial protections now in place for Cashes Ledge and New England’s Canyons and Seamounts, a national monument provides permanent protection against all types of harmful extraction.

Such protection would benefit critically endangered right whales, which are known to depend on Cashes Ledge, fantastic deep-sea corals in the Canyons and Seamounts, and the important sea birds that feed on the surface of these rich waters.  Many coastal businesses, including many fishermen, support the proposal because they recognize there will also be broad economic benefits that will result from protecting these unique treasures and a healthier marine environment.

These areas belong to the U.S. public, and overwhelming evidence shows that the monument process is fair and that a marine monument would best serve the public’s interests now and into the future.

Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

Council votes to slash protected habitats in New England’s ocean by 60 percent

The votes are in, and any hopes of the New England Fishery Management Council redeeming itself are lost.

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Yesterday, the Council, which is charged with protecting New England’s fishing habitats and economies, finalized its votes on the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2. After 12 years of work and the availability of the most sophisticated science modeling and analysis ever used by the region’s fisheries managers, the Council hammered the final nail into the coffin of what could have been a landmark victory for ocean habitat protection in New England.

The Council was tasked to vote on habitat management areas for five key fishing regions in New England. Simply put, a vote in favor of habitat protection would have established year-round, long-term fishing closures for the most critical essential fish habitats. A vote against would expose those same fragile ocean habitats to destructive fishing practices – threatening the health of our ocean, fisheries, and coastal economies.

Ultimately, though the Council voted to keep some protections intact, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area, it entirely caved to industry pressures as to the rest of the region. The Council’s final votes cut overall protected ocean habitat by an astonishing 60 percent – that’s more than 5,400 square miles of current protected areas. Here’s how it all breaks down:

Georges Bank:

No decision shows the Council’s willingness to grant the industry’s every wish like the Georges Bank vote. At the June Habitat Committee Meeting, it permitted the industry to propose an entirely new alternative prior to any scientific analysis or chance for public comment. The industry-proposed alternative, ultimately voted in by the Council, was clearly a play for increasing access for scallopers to areas of Georges Bank where industry is quick to claim “scallops are dying of old age!” The Council’s own science, however, shows that these areas are comprised of 80 percent gravel and cobble bottom, the most vulnerable of habitats. Allowing scallop dredges into this area is inexcusable when other profitable areas—such as the re-opened Nantucket Lightship area—have been made available under the Council’s decisions for the fishery that already has the highest landings value in the country. Though the Council slightly amended the Committee’s alternative to add a prohibition on fishing in the lobster nursery area on Georges Bank, the protection is only seasonal even though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission highlighted the importance of the habitat itself for the future of the lobster stocks. Overall with yesterday’s vote, approximately 80 percent of current protected areas on Georges Bank will be lost.

Central Gulf of Maine:

The Council voted to maintain most existing closures in the Central Gulf of Maine, such as the Cashes Ledge Closure Area – however, these measures are simply not enough. The good news is that the Cashes Ledge Closure Area remains closed to mobile-tending bottom gear; the bad news is that much of the area has been identified only as a “mortality closure,” meaning that the area is not recognized for its habitat value and is more susceptible to being opened to fishing in the future, despite the Council’s own analysis that the highest benefits would be achieved by keeping the entire area closed.

Western Gulf of Maine:

The decision surrounding the Western Gulf of Maine was another loss. The Council voted to reduce the size of the existing protected area by 25%. It also voted to allow damaging shrimp trawls to invade an area that has been closed to commercial fishing for more than 20 years.

Eastern Gulf of Maine (Downeast Maine):

A fishing closure did not previously exist in the Eastern Gulf of Maine, so a vote to establish one should be seen as a small victory. However, the Council seemed to forget the intended purpose of the Amendment and voted to significantly reduce the size and scope of the newly protected area in the Downeast Maine area.

Great South Channel/Southern New England:

The Council’s scientific modeling revealed the existence of vulnerable habitat in the Great South Channel off of Cape Cod. Existing protected areas in southern New England waters were deemed less susceptible to fishing impacts, and their protections were removed. The Council established a new Great South Channel Habitat Management Area, but did not hesitate to permit clam dredges – the most damaging of fishing gear – into the majority of the newly created “protected area.”

A missed opportunity

The second Omnibus Habitat Amendment had an auspicious beginning when the Council set a goal of increasing ocean habitat protection and minimizing the negative effects of fishing gear on ocean habitats. However, 12 years later, the result is just the opposite: the Council ignored its own science, dismissed the will of the people as expressed in tens of thousands of public comments, and thumbed its nose at the recommendations of its parent federal agency, NOAA. All we have to show for it is a the shell of a “habitat amendment” that has resulted in a massive diminishment of habitat and fish population protection – and which will, in the long run, do more harm than good for New England’s fishing communities.

 Conservation Law Foundation followed this process since the beginning and remains at the forefront of protecting essential ocean habitats from the most destructive commercial fishing practices. New England fisheries lag far behind those around the nation — but this does not mean that all hope is lost for our fisheries. Of the nearly 160,000 people who weighed in on this issue, an overwhelming 96 percent of them wanted an increase in protected areas, not a decrease.

Thank you to all of those who weighed in during this public comment period. The fight is not over. CLF remains dedicated to making the public’s voice heard and will continue to work hard to ensure the proper management of our fisheries and ocean resources.  And, once the Council submits its final vote to NOAA, you will once again have a chance to make your own voice heard in favor of protections for New England’s ocean. Stay tuned to CLF’s blog and Enews for opportunities to comment on the Council’s lopsided amendment in the weeks ahead.

Want to help? Get involved or make a donation today.

Georges Bank on the Habitat Chopping Block

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee continues to show complete disregard for habitat protection. Up for consideration at the Committee’s Monday meeting was an industry-introduced proposal to open critical areas of Georges Bank as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The proposal was originally designed to allow access to the Northern edge of Georges Bank for scalloping.

The discussion that played out reinforced the notion that the management body tasked with protecting essential fish habitat in New England is driven instead by short-term industry interests and willing to sacrifice important ecological areas in order to accommodate fishing interests.

The Habitat Committee ultimately voted to the full Council as its preferred alternative for the Georges Bank area a revised and further weakened version of the industry’s proposal, which establishes two habitat closures along the southern edge (a western and eastern area) closed to mobile-bottom tending gear and a “mortality closure” over the scallop and vulnerable habitat rich northern edge. A mortality closure can be opened at the discretion of the Council and NMFS when the population of fish that it was intended to protect no longer need such catch protections

When a commenter pointed out to the Committee that the “mortality closure” comprised 80% gravel and cobble bottom habitat – some of the most vulnerable, high quality essential fish habitat according to NEFMC’s own data – the Committee moved quickly to conjure up a new name for the area. Sadly, no wordsmithing could disguise the meaning of intent of the Committee to ensure that damaging scallop dredges would gain access to this most vulnerable of habitats. In a move that again directly contradicted the Council’s own science, the Committee leapt to relocate the western habitat protected area from a region comprised mostly of cobble and gravel bottom to one dominated by sand. The Council has repeatedly taken the position in this years-long process that their science indicates that sandy bottom on Georges Bank has among the lowest values as essential fish habitat.

With this as preferred alternative going into the June full Council meeting, Georges Bank faces a drastic reduction in overall protected habitat area, rolling back decades of habitat recovery in some of the areas now proposed to be wide open to all fishing gears. Disregarding its own science accumulated over the innumerable years this amendment has been underway, the Council seems positioned to cash in its habitat protected areas in favor of short term economic gain, while risking long term viability of New England’s fishing future.

The Council meets in the third week of June to finalize its votes on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. After the June vote, the Council will submit its proposed amendment to NOAA for final approval or disapproval. At this point, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in with the agency about how the Omnibus Habitat Amendment moves ocean habitat protections backwards and endangers the future of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

Image: A sea scallop and tunicate colonies encrusting pebble gravel habitat on Northern Georges Bank. Photo by USGS.

Meet Our Dive Team


With our dive team busy exploring Cashes Ledge and other sites in the Gulf of Maine, we thought we’d introduce you to our star-studded team of ocean adventurers!


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Brian Skerry is a renowned underwater photographer praised around the world for his aesthetic sense and evocative scenes. His images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the threats that endanger our oceans and their inhabitants.

A contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine since 1998, Brian has covered a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries. His latest book, a 160-photo monograph entitled Ocean Soul, was published in 2011.

Skerry is also a passionate ocean advocate. After three decades of exploring the world’s oceans, the Massachusetts native has returned to the Gulf of Maine to document and protect its exceptional diversity of marine wildlife and habitat.


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Jon Witman is a professor of biology at Brown University. He has studied the ecology of subtidal marine communities for over 30 years, and has conducted research in six of the world’s seven oceans.

Jon led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine. He has published numerous per-reviewed papers and book chapters on the invertebrate and fish communities that thrive on the rocky seafloor at Cashes Ledge, and he has also studied the internal waves that support primary productivity in the area. He is committed to protecting the ecological and scientific value of this unique marine habitat.

Jon will also be joined on the expedition by his Ph.D. student Robbie Lamb.



Evan Kovacs started his filming career in 2003 on the History Channel’s underwater adventure series Deep Sea Detectives.  He has also had an ongoing filming relationship with the Emmy award winning Lonewolf Documentary Group, and recently the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

With WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Evan has filmed on the deep submersible ALVIN and the ROV Jason. Currently he is working with the lab to develop the next generation of 3D and 2D cameras and shooting techniques for topside and underwater imaging. Evan has been diving for over 18 years and has dived on shipwrecks, caves and reefs across the world.


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Luis Lamar is a scientific technician with WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab. He has filmed and photographed marine life around the world, from New Zealand to Micronesia. Lu has assisted Brian Skerry on numerous dive expeditions and has captured video of the kelp forests on Cashes Ledge for Conservation Law Foundation.


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Ken Houtler is the captain of WHOI’s R/V Tioga, a research boat launched in 2004 and designed for day and overnight trips in coastal waters. Ken has led the vessel on countless research expeditions in New England waters, including trips to deploy and recover autonomous oceanographic instruments, to collect data on harmful algal blooms, and to tag endangered North Atlantic right whales.


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Liz Kintzing is the expedition’s dive captain. Liz supervises the academic diving program at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, and she also sits on the board of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. She has been diving with Jon Witman on Cashes Ledge for over 20 years.

John Kerry, bowhead whales, and Cashes Ledge


Two items caught my eye when I was skimming through the Boston Globe recently and, while neither had anything to do with Cashes Ledge, it was the first place that came to mind when I read the stories.

  1. John Kerry is convening a meeting of leaders from around the world this June to discuss global ocean health and climate change – topics that have long been a “personal passion but also the source of political frustration” of our Secretary of State. (Tell me about it!)
  2. A bowhead whale was spotted for the second time in 3 years off the coast of Cape Cod. This is a thousand mile detour south for the polar-dwelling whale.


Kerry may be thinking globally, but this bowhead whale is acting locally (welcome to the neighborhood!). Bowhead whales are an Arctic species, but even the northern water is getting warmer. Many Atlantic species from south of Cape Cod are moving north and offshore to deeper water, presumably where the cooler temperatures are more to their liking. But what is an Arctic animal to do when things heat up? Why is this one going south? Is it following food, or just confused by the changing temperature in its home waters?  Is the baseline shifting in New England’s waters?

The effects of climate change are not likely to be simple and predictable. Some, like warming and acidifying ocean water, can be measured and tracked and make reasonable sense. But others, like where animals will go, how their reproduction will change, and what these changes will do to the ecosystems that contain them, are mysteries we are only beginning to examine.

In the face of all this unpredictability and change, it is essential that we leave nature some space to catch up – that we set aside some especially productive areas so our ocean ecosystems have a chance to regenerate, and to find a new balance with some of the old players – the cod, the whales, the sharks, turtles, flounder, anemones, plankton and other full- and part-time residents of New England’s ocean.

You may be wondering why we keep talking about Cashes Ledge. The reason is simple – it is one of the most thriving places in our waters right now. Fish breed and shelter there, where the currents make just the right mix for a rich brew of plankton and kelp to fuel this complicated and lush wilderness .

Protecting it is simple, too. Simple, but not easy.

Which is why we will also keep asking for your help until we can ensure permanent protection of this special place. How can we expect our ocean to keep thriving if we don’t give it the space to do so?

Please join us now to protect Cashes Ledge. If you’ve already signed the petition, consider making a gift to help CLF win this fight for ocean health, so that generations to come can experience the abundance that we once took for granted in New England’s ocean.

Photo by Corey Accardo, courtesy of NOAA.

Business as usual meets the new normal: climate change and fisheries management

What if a hurricane with the lowest low pressure readings ever seen in human history was barreling toward the East Coast and all we did was debate if it was a category 4 or 5? John Bullard, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in New England, used that metaphor recently to describe how we are coping with the enormous transformations that are happening in our ocean right now from climate change.

He used this attention-getter at the overdue multi-agency session in Washington, DC last week, the purpose of which was to consider the implications of climate change for fisheries management along the US Atlantic coast. This meeting was overdue in that climate change impacts are already being observed by fishermen and scientists alike, and adjusting to our new “normal” will not be easy and will take time.

For New England, the challenge is stark. The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly heating bodies of water on the Atlantic Coast, if not in the US. These temperature changes are sending the sea life off to seek their comfort zone – according to NMFS, 24 of 36 stocks evaluated seem to be moving north or away from coastal waters. To make matters worse, our ocean is also acidifying at increasingly alarming rates. This can cause major problems for shell-forming animals, and much of our fishing economy is dependent on shell-forming animals – scallops and lobsters. Unfortunately, there has been little economic analysis about the implications of this issue yet.

Former fish czar Eric Schwaab also spoke at the climate change workshop, noting that the climate is likely changing faster than the fisheries governance structure. Sadly, New England’s fisheries managers have not particularly distinguished themselves in the first 30 years of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, even with a relatively stable ecosystem. Yes, I know there is no such thing as a “stable ecosystem” but it will likely seem like one compared to future manifestations. Now the natural variability will be happening within an ecosystem that is rapidly changing itself.

Bullard drove this home by saying that the current climate-changing 400 parts-per-million levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been experienced by mankind, let alone New England fishermen. He then made the obvious point that nothing in our oceans will ever be “normal” again, even though, right now, everyone is acting as if it will be. As if that huge hurricane heading our way will just be going out to sea.

Current examples of the effects of climate abound and were noted by various speakers: black sea bass in NH lobster traps, green crabs taking over the Maine coast, more summer flounder summering more in New England than ever before, no northern shrimp fishery to be found, and the looming end of the southern New England lobster fishery.

I’ve seen it myself, with the glut of longfin squid hanging out on the Massachusetts north shore the last two summers. While we can hope that these changes will be gradual and that an incremental approach will suffice, many ecologists suggest that the “state changes” could be rapid, extensive, and irreversible. Moreover, some New England fishermen who imagine that they will soon being fishing on Mid-Atlantic fish stocks may have forgotten that most of those fish are already in limited access fisheries and have been allocated to others.

Bullard put his finger on what is needed at such a critical pivotal moment: leadership. In his words (loosely transcribed), leadership requires responding to a threat with actions commensurate to the size of the threat even if everyone around you is acting like the threat doesn’t exist.

Amen. While it is hard to put aside my cynicism about the likelihood that this Rube Goldberg fisheries management system—Dr. Mike Orbach’s metaphor here at the meeting—is up to the task, the challenge is clear and the stakes could not be higher for fishermen and fishing communities up and down the Atlantic coast.

In the end, Bullard’s message seemed to me to fall largely on deaf ears at the workshop, with much of the to-do discussion focused on managing at the margin and improved coordination between the New England and mid-Atlantic councils. In other words, business as usual. The leadership to respond to the dramatic shifts in our marine ecosystems due to climate change was not yet evident at the workshop.

But there is hope for the future. While many of these forces of nature are likely beyond our control even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, we can prepare for changes and increase resiliency by rebuilding as many fish populations as we can and protecting habitat. Dynamic, integrated management will help our fisheries, ecosystems, and communities respond to the realities of a new normal.

Image via NASA Earth Observatory