Fish Friday: SOS! Save Our (Atlantic) Salmon!

Welcome to our second installation of Fish Friday (on a Thursday)! Last week, we focused on the Atlantic sturgeon, a species listed as endangered or threatened throughout the mid-Atlantic – it’s no surprise these fish are off the menu. But what about Atlantic salmon, the most-consumed species of salmon (the second most-consumed type of seafood) in the U.S.?

In 2013, Americans ate 2.7 pounds of salmon per person, second only to shrimp. As such a prominent American (and international) menu staple, wild Atlantic salmon populations must be flourishing, right? Wrong – commercial Atlantic salmon fisheries in the U.S. have been closed since 1948, and most recreational fisheries were shut down decades ago. Global stocks have been declining since the early 1800’s. So what’s going on? And what have you been eating?

The Fish

Atlantic salmon is the only salmon species native to the East Coast of the United States. Like Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater, spend a majority of their lives in salt water, and return to freshwater to spawn. The life cycle of Atlantic salmon is fairly complex, as the salmon mature through multiple life stages during their first 1-2 years before they migrate to the open ocean.

In late autumn, female salmon bury their eggs along freshwater stream bottoms. Come March or April, the eggs hatch into alevin, which mature into fry after about 3-6 weeks, and then quickly become parr. As parr grow, they become territorial and move to areas with larger substrate and deeper, faster flowing water. Parr go through a physiological process called “smoltification” in which they develop a tolerance for saltwater and imprint on the chemical nature of their stream so they can later return to spawn.

As smolts, Atlantic salmon (now about 2 years old) migrate to the open ocean. They typically spend their first winter south of Greenland, where they mature into adults. During this time, the fish replace their old dietary preferences of small crustaceans and krill with prey fish such as Atlantic herring and rainbow smelt.

After about 2 years, they will return to Maine to spawn in November. Unlike other salmon species, Atlantic salmon are iteroparous, meaning they may spawn more than once.

The Fishery

The Atlantic salmon has been a commercially valuable fish since the fishery opened in Maine in the 1600’s, but due to overfishing, the global population began to decline around the 1800’s. In 1947, fishery landings plummeted to as low as 40 salmon, prompting an effective closure the following year. It wasn’t until 1989, however, that all state and federal commercial salmon fisheries in New England were officially closed by law. Most recreational fisheries in New England also closed decades ago, but a few remain open today under strict regulation.

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population segment endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2009, the agencies extended the ESA protection to include more territory and, with the help of Conservation Law Foundation, identified Atlantic salmon critical habitat.

To monitor the Gulf of Maine DPS, the U.S. Atlantic Salmon Assessment Committee measures the number of adults returning to rivers in Maine to spawn each year. While some populations in the Northern Baltic Sea may be recovering, the Gulf of Maine DPS is still in trouble. In 2006, the Atlantic Salmon Biological Review Team estimated Atlantic salmon extinction risk at 19-75%.

With U.S. fisheries closed, why is the Gulf of Maine population still at risk of extinction?

Climate change effects, such as warming sea surface temperatures, increased water acidity and aluminum toxicity, and altered predator distributions, dramatically limit juvenile survival. Increased harvests in Greenland may also severely decrease the number of adults returning to Maine to spawn. Finally, New England coastal development and dam sites threaten species that must travel up and down river throughout their life cycles. Restoration efforts have been introduced by the State of Maine, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to reduce the effects of national risks, and environmental groups such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation are calling for stricter catch limits on European countries in order to protect the Gulf of Maine DPS.

 The Fish Farm

Since 1864, Atlantic salmon have been hatchery-raised to supplement the crashed wild populations. U.S. Atlantic salmon aquaculture produces about 12,000 live lbs per year in Maine and 8,000 live lbs per year in Washington. We import about 28,000 live lbs of farmed Atlantic salmon each year mostly from Canada, Chile, Norway, or Scotland.

Over 20 environmental and food safety laws govern U.S. salmon farming in order to prevent issues such as nutrient discharge, animal escape, disease and pathogens, and coastal use conflict. However, as NOAA puts it, “zero environmental risk is not realistic for any type of human activity.” Farming may cause waste build-up, escaped farmed fish may introduce parasites to the wild, and breeding between farmed and wild salmon may decrease genetic adaptations to environmental conditions. Regulations are in place, but the industry is still far from perfect.

Save the Salmon!

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) selected the Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon DPS as one of eight endangered species to feature in their “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” initiative. Hopefully, the agency’s concentrated efforts (and subsequent increased global awareness) will begin to stabilize Atlantic salmon populations in the Gulf of Maine and around the world.

Image credit: Timothy Knepp, FWS

A Vote to Protect Mid-Atlantic Deep Sea Corals

On June 10, just two days after World Oceans Day, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) voted to create the largest marine protected area in U.S. Atlantic waters. The Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan protects over 38,000 square miles of ocean stretching from Virginia to New York, including recently discovered “submarine” canyons in the Outer Continental Shelf. The protected area includes 15 discrete coral zones (areas of known or highly likely coral presence) and a broad coral zone extending 200 miles offshore. The Amendment bans trawling and dredging at depths greater than 1,450 feet, safeguarding most deep sea corals in the proposed protected area.

Deep sea corals live between 50 to 2,000 meters below the ocean’s surface, and recent NOAA expeditions have discovered more than 40 coral species in the Mid-Atlantic region, including three species believed to be new to science. They grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers.

A Victory for Ocean Conservation

Environmental groups are ecstatic that the Amendment, which was three years in the making, finally made it through MAFMC. The proposed protection is important because one sweep of a trawl net can destroy what’s taken centuries to grow – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat. These populations include commercially valuable species such as tuna, lobster, and squid that many East Coast residents depend on for their livelihoods. Protecting these corals is highly valuable from a habitat perspective, as well as for understanding ocean history. By studying the trace elements and isotopes incorporated in century-old corals, scientists can learn about historic ocean climate and current systems.

Unlike the environmental realm, the fishing industry is a divided front. Some squid fishermen are concerned about the effects of restrictions on their catch, while others cooperated with scientists to help determine boundaries for the protected area. Gregory P. DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association says that the squid fishing industry may disagree with conservation groups about specific implementation strategies, but that the industry is largely supportive of the restrictions. “If we stay in business and protect corals, we’ve done our job.”

We still have work to do.

This protection, if approved, will be a huge step forward in preserving Mid-Atlantic deep sea habitat, but there are many factors still threatening deep sea corals in the Atlantic. First, the Amendment only applies to deep sea corals in the Mid-Atlantic region. Corals outside of the protected area will still be vulnerable to the most destructive forms of fishing gear, and shallow-water coral (even within the protected region), such as those off the coast of Maryland, will be susceptible to offshore wind energy development. Moreover, the amendment does not address oil and gas exploration, drilling, or other underwater activities, even within the proposed protected area. As Gib Brogan of Oceana puts it, “We hope the Obama administration won’t reverse these important steps to protect deep sea corals by putting the region at risk from the impacts of seismic airguns and offshore oil and gas development.”

The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) is slated to resume work on the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment this year. The process invites stakeholder participation and rounds of public comments. One round of public comments for the MAFMC generated over 120,000 letters, almost all in favor of substantial deep sea coral protection. This is our chance to win protection for the breathtaking New England deep sea coral communities that are critical to the region’s sustainable fisheries, ecosystem functioning, and our understanding of ocean history. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage with NEFMC!

Images via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Welcome to Our First Fish Friday! This Week: Atlantic Sturgeon

The New England Ocean Odyssey team would like to welcome you to our new weekly series all about New England’s special ocean species! While we will primarily feature the region’s exceptional fish, we can’t guarantee that we won’t throw in the occasional marine mammal, reptile, or invertebrate. We couldn’t possibly resist discussing Atlantic harbor seals, Kemp’s ridley turtles, and American lobsters. So join us every Friday to learn about the ecologically essential, economically critical, and craziest-looking sea creatures in New England!

Let’s dive into this week’s feature: the threatened, yet resilient Atlantic sturgeon

This fish species looks like a creature from prehistoric times, and for good reason. Sturgeons (family Acipenseridae) are a group of primitive fishes that emerged about 70 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous epoch. In fact, some of the best-preserved fossils were discovered in dinosaur stomachs! While sturgeons today have cartilaginous skeletons (as opposed to their bony ancestors), they have retained many primitive features. These include bony plates (called scutes) instead of scales, long “whiskers” (called barbels) covered in taste buds that dangle from the underside of their snouts, and the ability to shoot out their tubular mouths to inhale prey1.

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) can be distinguished from other sturgeon species by their large size, small mouth, and distinct snout shape. They range from dark blue and black to olive green on their backs and have lighter bellies. Adults can measure up to 800 pounds and may reach 14 feet long!

They have been aged up to 60 years old and generally reach sexual maturity between 10 and 35 years old, although southern populations may mature faster. Males typically spawn every 1 to 5 years, while females will spawn every 2 to 5 years.

Human Threats

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend a majority of their adult lives in the ocean, and return to fresh water to spawn. In the spring (May and June in northern waters), Atlantic sturgeon migrate from their oceanic ranges into rivers along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador, Canada, where they spawn at the border of fresh and salt water. This dependence on estuarine habitat, in combination with late spawning age, makes Atlantic sturgeon particularly vulnerable to human threats such as dams, water pollution, and overfishing.

In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the federal government implemented a coast-wide moratorium on commercial harvest that remains in place today. While this prevents intentional harvest of Atlantic sturgeon, many factors continue to threaten stocks up and down the coast: dams prevent migration to spawning grounds, dredging ruins spawning areas altogether, water pollution (often due to coastal development) hinders juvenile development, and other commercial fisheries accidentally harvest Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch.

To address these additional threats, NOAA listed five populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2012. The Gulf of Maine population was listed as threatened, while the Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina, and South Atlantic populations were listed as endangered.

With money made available by the ESA listing, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service was able to invest in research to determine human threats to Atlantic sturgeon populations and devise mitigation strategies, such as nets that will allow sturgeon to escape while still capturing smaller fish.

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In the Gulf of Maine, multiple dams have been or will be removed, allowing Atlantic sturgeon to return to their historical spawning grounds. There have recently been reports of potentially higher catch-per-unit-effort than in the past – a sign that the population may be recovering.

There are still a lot of cards stacked against the Atlantic sturgeon; we have much left to learn about their distribution, and, at the moment, NOAA has little control over when and where dredging occurs. But, as conservation writer and editor Ted Williams says, “Maybe the greatest value of the Endangered Species Act — greater even than information it generates about how and where animals live and the threats they face — is the knowledge that it’s not too late to save them…Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient.”

Sammi Dowdell is the Ocean Conservation Program Summer Intern for Conservation Law Foundation.

New England Canyons and Seamounts are the Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures

New England is a region full of remarkable marine landscapes. An area like Cashes Ledge speaks to the immense beauty and diversity found in our local ocean, but it is not the only one.

Approximately 150 miles off the coast of southern New England, where the continental shelf drops off into the ocean abyss, liesa chain of undersea canyons and nearby seamounts that are home to an incredible richness of marine life. The canyons plunge thousands of feet deep, some deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the seamounts rise as high as 7,000 feet above the seafloor, higher than any mountain east of the Rockies.

Much like Cashes Ledge, these habitats give rise to an elaborate underwater world of marine species. Communities of brilliant cold-water corals line the walls of the canyons and seamounts supporting a  diverse deep-sea ecosystem and providing refuge for abundant fish and invertebrate species. Nearly 1,000 species have been identified in the New England Canyon and Seamount region, and researchers are discovering more with every expedition.

The nutrient rich cold water brings an abundance of plankton, squid, and forage fish, such as mackerel, This in turn attracts schools of tuna, sharks, seabirds, and marine mammals, such as endangered sperm whales and North Atlantic right whales – both rare, iconic species of the region.

The depth and ruggedness of the region have naturally protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts from human disturbance thus far, but this may not always be the case. This region is particularly vulnerable to fishing and offshore development. One sweep of a bottom trawl would have devastating effects for the fragile deep-sea community, and future any development in the region, such as drilling or mining, would pose great risk to marine mammals and fish.

Scientists have also suggested that deep-sea coral communities are among the most vulnerable to ocean warming and ocean acidification. Maintaining the health of the canyons and seamounts will be imperative in the fight against climate change.

The New England Canyons and Seamounts region is another special place that deserves protection.

 

Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

On National Endangered Species Day, Lingering Right Whales Are At Increased Risk

Today is National Endangered Species Day. Each year on the third Friday of May, National Endangered Species Day celebrates learning about our endangered and threatened species and how we can help protect them.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law on December 28, 1973 and is administered by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the Endangered Species Act protects about 2,215 species; NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over 125 endangered and threatened marine species.

New England is home to a number of endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, who’s estimated global population is only about 522 individuals.  Between December and April each year, the whales visit Cape Cod Bay to feed on plentiful plankton.

The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, MA monitors and documents the North Atlantic Right Whale population each winter via aerial surveys. This year, researchers have noticed the whales lingering in the area rather than moving offshore to deeper waters as expected at the end of April. The persistence of the whales creates a potentially dangerous – and deadly – situation for this endangered species, as well as people on the water.

Boat traffic in Cape Cod Bay is now increasing with the commercial fishing season starting on May 1 and warmer weather marking the beginning of the recreational boating season. With more boats on the water, the risk of striking a whale greatly increases. Also, as more lobstermen head out on the water, an increase in the number of traps poses a greater risk of entanglement.

Unfortunately, one whale identified as female 3999 by CCS researchers was struck by a boat last week. According to Scott Landry, the director of the CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response team, the young whale appears to be feeding normally, but the wound is large and infection is a major concern.

The persisting right whales pose a difficult situation for managers because there is little that can be done to remedy the situation except hope that accidents do not occur. Federal and state law already prohibits boaters and fishermen, including their gear, from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale. Also, those on the water are urged to reduce speed to less than 10 knots when traveling through a recent sighting area.

While increased sightings of an endangered species is usually a cause for celebration, hopefully, the right whales will soon move offshore, and the summer fishing and boating season can continue without further incident.

Great White Sharks Making Waves

For a long while it seemed like our brutally cold, record-setting snowy winter would never end. But now, the warmer days are becoming more frequent, the leaves are (slowly) returning to the trees, and rather than trekking through feet of snow, we can lay in the warmth of the sun.

The summer season is nearly upon us, and that means great white shark season is fast approaching! Just south of our New England waters, news of a great white shark made waves over the weekend.

Mary Lee, a 16-foot long, 3,500 pound female, surfaced off the New Jersey shore before heading back out to deeper waters, and as of this morning, she’s northbound, surfacing near Long Island!

The Ocearch Global Shark Tracker tracks the movements of great white sharks, and you can follow along using the web or mobile tool. When the dorsal fin of a tagged shark breaks the surface, a signal is transmitted and a “ping” is registered that gives the approximate location of the shark.

Ocearch researchers tagged Mary Lee off of Cape Cod back in September 2012. Since then, she has travelled 19,658.738 miles!

According to the Global Shark Tracker, Genie, another female great white shark, pinged in the New England canyons area at the end of April.

Make sure to follow the fun and stay up to date on shark movements all summer long!

 

Image via NOAA Sanctuaries.

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