As 2015 Fishing Season Kicks Off, a Still Uncertain Future for Cod Remains

The 2015 fishing season begins today, May 1, and stricter – but necessary – quotas on Gulf of Maine cod will take effect.

Last year, scientists determined that the population of spawning cod had plummeted to historic lows (3 to 4 percent of the target level). In response, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the 2015 total allowable catch (TAC) of Gulf of Maine cod from 1,550 to 386 metric tons – a 75% reduction from the 2014 fishing year TAC. Possession of recreational-caught Gulf of Maine cod will also be entirely prohibited. These new measures, as well as changes to Gulf of Maine closed areas and catch limits for winter founder and haddock are implemented through Framework 53 Adjustment to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.

NOAA approved Framework 53 last week with the expectation that catch limits may be adjusted after the Gulf of Maine cod stock assessment scheduled for September 2015. For now, the new Gulf of Maine cod catch limits replace the emergency regulations imposed by NOAA last fall.

Many Gulf of Maine commercial fishermen who harvest groundfish are concerned about the new limits knowing that they will face a difficult fishing year. As AP reporter Patrick Whittle describes, cod are a “choke species.” Catching other groundfish such has haddock or pollock without catching cod poses a near-impossible challenge for fishermen, and the limits on cod will likely affect these other fisheries and their respective markets.

The new measures, though strict, are more than needed for the future of New England’s iconic species. In fact, they continue to represent a high risk management approach. Scientists indicated that the total allowable catch for Gulf of Maine cod should be limited to 200 metric tons – almost 50% below the new quota limits. They also warned that even such low limits may still be insufficient to allow coastal cod populations to recover. Cod is in crisis, driven by historic overfishing and compounded by new ecological changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

Low cod catches are necessary, but they are not enough. In addition to tight catch regulations, protecting the cod’s essential marine habitat, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, will be vital to the cod’s recovery, as well as the health of other species. To thrive, fish need areas where they can spawn, feed, grow, and find shelter without the threat and disturbance of fishing and fishing gear impacts.

Cod fishing was America’s first colonial industry. Will it also follow the path of the Atlantic halibut fishery into commercial oblivion? Now, 400 years later, there is little doubt that unless cod catches are reduced to as close to zero as possible, a cod fishery will move out of the region’s reach for decades, if not more.

Cod’s future in New England, after decades of overfishing and risky management, is sadly now anyone’s guess.

Puffin Project Coming to the New England Aquarium

Director of National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin Steve Kress and award-winning journalist/photographer Derrick Jackson will join the New England Aquarium Lecture Series Tuesday, May 5 to discuss their new book, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

Project Puffin is the success story of how puffins were restored to their historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. In the early 1970s, young puffins from Newfoundland were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine, where hunters had previously wiped out the local population. Over the years, the number of puffins slowly increased, and now about 1,000 pairs nest on the Maine islands. Kress and volunteers regularly monitor the young puffins and their nesting success.

Kress and his team now struggle with new challenges, as when warming waters in the Gulf of Maine two years ago affected the amount of forage fish that adult puffins could bring back to the nest. Several nestlings starved and the nesting success for puffins plummeted. Kress is now studying how improvements to the management of fishing on forage species, especially for herring, might help puffins and other seabirds survive disruptions to the ocean food web.

You can read an excerpt from Kress and Jackson’s new book in the recent Boston Globe article, “What it takes to restore the puffin to Maine’s islands,” and be sure to attend the lecture next week to learn more.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Andreas Trepte 

A Warning From The Distant Past About Current Ocean Acidification

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have made a disturbing discovery about the biggest mass extinction in Earth’s history and the current reality of ocean acidification.

The Great Dying, or the P-T extinction, marked the transition from the Permian to the Triassic period 252 million years ago. The largest of five mass extinctions, the Great Dying killed off 93-97% of all marine species. Both marine and terrestrial species were already under considerable stress during the Permian period due to continual super-volcano eruptions causing high global temperatures and low oxygen levels.

Recent chemical analysis of ancient rocks from the United Arab Emirates desert, however, also shows that the oceans suddenly became more acidic during this time period. Scientists have concluded that ocean acidification, also the result of continual super-volcano eruptions, was the final nail for the majority of marine species in the Permian period.

Most worrisome is that researchers say the rate of carbon dioxide release from the volcanoes is comparable to the current level of human produced carbon dioxide emissions.  Of course, the Great Dying occurred on a much larger timescale (one that is even difficult to imagine), but we should take this new information as a serious warning.

The impacts of ocean acidification can already be seen throughout New England ocean ecosystems. For example, in more acidic ocean waters, shellfish such as mussels and oysters cannot form their shells, making them more vulnerable to predation and other environmental stressors.

Aware of ocean acidification’s increasing threat to our marine life and the coastal communities and economies that depend on it, New England state legislatures are hoping to form a multistate pact to fight ocean acidification along the east coast. Maine’s ocean acidification panel has already produced its final report and was shocked by how little we actually know about ocean acidification and its impacts. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire legislatures are working on bills to follow suit.

According to Hauke Kite-Powell, a Woods Hole research specialist, state officials can do little about the atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to ocean acidification, but can start with better regulating nutrient flow into our coastal waters.

Ocean acidification is not an easy problem to fix, nor will it disappear any time soon, but at least we are taking initial steps to address this major threat to our oceans and marine life.

Right Whale Mother and Calf Pair Sighted

On April 1, a Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) aerial survey group observed the first right whale mother and calf pair of the Northeast season.

The mother was identified as Clover (right whale #1611) and was seen with her fourth calf.

Right whales migrate to New England waters during the spring and summer months to feed and nurse. The current North Atlantic population is estimated to be about 500 individuals.

Photo credit: Leah Crowe, NEFSC/NOAA

Protect the Porbeagle

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) is considering two petitions to list porbeagle sharks as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS originally rejected the petitions in 2010, but federal regulators are now reviewing the status of the species pursuant to a recent court order.

Reaching up to 11.5 feet in length, porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus), also known as blue dogs, can be recognized by their stout dark gray bodies, pointed snouts, and large black eyes. They are found globally swimming over continental shelves and deep ocean basins, but preferring cold and temperate waters, this species is most often found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Not much is known about their reproductive cycles, but the Gulf of Maine is thought to be a favorite mating ground.

Commercial fisheries for porbeagle sharks exist in other areas of the world, but in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank region, porbeagles are often victims of bycatch. It’s for this reason that Northwest Atlantic populations of porbeagle sharks are declining and why their status is under review.

Here’s just one more, rather poignant, incentive to protect essential marine habitat in New England like Cashes Ledge.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

New Research Published on Leatherback Sea Turtle Migrations

Migrating between their tropical breeding grounds to more temperate feeding grounds, leatherback sea turtles frequent New England during the late summer/early fall months. They can travel thousands of miles to come and forage on the abundance of jellyfish found floating in our coastal waters.

We still don’t fully understand exactly how these giant sea turtles travel such great distances, but not for lack of trying. Scientific research has demonstrated that leatherbacks can rely on a variety of cues, such as topographic features, currents, chemosensory signals, and magnetic orientation. In a paper published last week on leatherback sea turtle migration through the North Atlantic subtropical gyre, researchers were able to narrow down the possible strategies.

Dodge et al. tracked the migration of fifteen leatherback sea turtles off of the Massachusetts coast. While traversing the North Atlantic subtropical gyre , the individual sea turtles followed remarkably similar routes, all oriented to the south-southeast.

So, how do they do it? The waters of the North Atlantic subtropical gyre are too deep and the currents too weak for the turtles to rely on any topographical or hydrodynamic cues, and a sea turtle’s poor eyesight rules out a reliance on visual cues.

Previous lab experiments have demonstrated a sea turtle’s ability to use the Earth’s magnetic field like a compass, and Dodge et al. observed that leatherbacks spend more time on the surface during the day than at night. Based on these observations the researchers concluded that leatherbacks likely rely primarily on cues from the earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s orientation.

Dodge et al. hope that their findings will support further investigation into sea turtle migration patterns and the role played by magnetic and solar cues.

You can read more about this story in the Boston Globe.

Citation: Dodge KL, Galuardi B, Lutcavage ME. 2015 Orientation behaviour of leatherback sea turtles within the North Atlantic subtropical gyre. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20143129. <>

A Whole Lot of Snow

As we dig ourselves out of the third major snowstorm of the season (…or of the last three weeks), the general sentiment seems to be that spring cannot come soon enough. Even as a native New Englander, there is only so much hot chocolate that can make up for this much snow. Now, what would you do if it snowed every day? I think at that point we’d all be ready to move to the tropics.

Well, this is exactly what happens in the ocean in a phenomenon known as marine snow. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly the same—frozen flakes of water aren’t swirling through the water column. Marine snow is the broad term for organic matter that is continuously falling from the surface waters to the deep sea. It earned the name “marine snow” because it actually looks like fluffy white snowflakes.

Individual particles in the water column stick together and form marine snow. The exact composition varies from aggregate to aggregate, but it generally includes decaying animals, fecal matter, inorganic materials such as silt, and tiny microbes, such as algae and bacteria, that colonize and feed on the snow. As particles join and fall off, each aggregate of marine snow is continuously reorganized.

Phytoplankton performing photosynthesis are responsible for nearly 50% of Earth’s primary production, but since these microscopic organisms are only found in the euphotic zone (the first ~200m), scientists were long curious about how food reached organisms in deeper waters. The biological activity occurring in these surface waters produces marine snow, and the constantly sinking matter is an important food source for deep-sea animals that otherwise would not have access to life’s necessary nutrients. One study found that increased marine snow volume due to tidal changes in the Gulf of Maine increased benthic blue mussel feeding activity by as much as 40%.

The sinking rate of marine snow is largely dependent on the size of the aggregate and is facilitated by marine organisms in the water column. The larger the snowflake, the more quickly it falls. Zooplankton ingesting and subsequently releasing marine snow speed the process along or else it would take years for marine snow to reach the deep-sea. Scientists use sediment traps to research the falling marine snow, and research shows that it can fall as quickly as 29m per day.

Any snow that is not eaten by deep-sea organisms eventually falls to the seafloor. It is estimated that 815 million tons of carbon reaches the seafloor every year—that’s a whole lot of snow! Not all of it stays there, though, as deep-sea organisms shovel some back into the water column where it continues to cycle through the food chain. The organic material that does remain on the seafloor adds to a layer of “ooze” that makes up much of the ocean sediment and accumulates about six meters (20ft) every million years.

So, if ocean productivity depends on it, maybe snow everyday isn’t so bad.


Image via NOAA Ocean Service.

Massachusetts Releases the MA Ocean Management Plan 2.0 – Leading the Nation in Comprehensive Ocean Planning and Management

In 2008, Governor Deval Patrick signed the landmark first-in-the-nation Oceans Act mandating the state to develop and implement a science-based comprehensive ocean management plan to protect ocean wildlife and habitat and promote sustainable use of the ocean and its resources.  The following year, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) issued the MA Ocean Management Plan—the first comprehensive ocean management plan in the United States.  The Oceans Act requires the ocean plan to be updated every five years to ensure that the plan adapts as new information and science develop, policy goals evolve, and underlying conditions change (e.g., due to the effects of climate change).

Hence, in early January 2015, Massachusetts issued the 2015 Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan.  Major highlights of the revised plan include updates to the plan’s science and data foundation, identification of preliminary offshore renewable energy transmission corridors, establishment of standards for offshore sand and gravel extraction for beach renourishment, and a schedule for ocean development mitigation fees.

In the works since 2013, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) completed the revised plan with assistance from a 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission and a nine-member Ocean Science Advisory Council. CZM also convened six technical work groups focused on habitat, fisheries, sediment resources, recreational and cultural services, transportation and navigation, and energy and infrastructure. Incorporating information generated by the work groups, the 2015 plan updated the scientific and data foundation of the plan and further refined the designated habitat and wildlife protection areas. Over the next five years, resource managers can use this data to make responsible and scientifically sound decisions about how we use and manage the Commonwealth’s ocean waters.

Addressing the opportunity for clean renewable offshore wind energy, the 2015 plan identifies preliminary transmission routes to bring electricity from the two federal wind energy areas off the southern coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to landside grid tie-in locations. The Commonwealth expects to conduct further scientific study of these preliminary routes before any final delineation.

The 2015 plan also proposes new environmental standards for offshore sand/gravel extraction—a potential new and controversial use of the state’s offshore public trust resources—to mitigate increasing coastal erosion due to sea level rise and increased storm intensity caused by global warming. To guide the Commonwealth’s continued deliberation about offshore sand extraction, the Ocean Plan provides for the appointment of an Offshore Sand Task Force to provide guidance and advice to the Commonwealth about this issue.

Lastly, the plan, as required by the Ocean Act, establishes a schedule for ocean development mitigation fees to be banked in the state’s Ocean Resources and Waterways Trust and used for planning, management, restoration, or enhancement of marine habitat and uses.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the revision process was the opportunity for extensive and ongoing public and stakeholder participation through hearings and workshops held across the state. This demonstrated the kind of transparency and engagement that is possible—and necessary—in effective decision-making regarding our ocean resources.

To be effective, ocean plans need to be living documents that evolve with new information on and scientific understanding of our ocean environment.  Planning like this will start bringing the benefits of comprehensive ecosystem-based ocean planning closer than ever and none too soon given the already-measured impacts of climate change. Bravo to Massachusetts for putting this principle in motion in the 2015 Ocean Plan and for its continued leadership in ocean planning and management!