Op-ed: Preserve Cashes Ledge and save fish

This post is from an op-ed that was featured in the Climate Change Column of the Ipswich Chronicle. The author is Charlotte Kahn, an Ipswich resident and retired researcher/writer. Kahn attended a presentation last week featuring CLF’s senior counsel Peter Shelley, and felt compelled to share the message with her community.

The “extreme” drought ended with 5.5 inches of rain in January, for which we thank the rain gods. But it’s sobering to recall that 14 inches of rain broke all records in the Mother’s Day Flood of 2006. And according to town historian Gordon Harris, “The five highest floods ever recorded on the Ipswich have occurred since April 1987.”

It doesn’t take a climate scientist to tell us that whiplashing weather patterns are breaking records with unnerving regularity – from historic drought to epic flood, Arctic blast to intolerable heat wave. Fossil-fuel emissions are rising into the atmosphere at rates higher than in millions of years, blanketing and warming the Earth. The Northeast is changing. The waters of the Gulf of Maine – Cape Cod to Nova Scotia – are now heating faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Precipitation in the region is projected to increase by 70 percent – interspersed with longer droughts – this century.

In the face of accelerating change, we need to learn how handle extremes. Our wells and reservoirs almost ran dry during the drought. Yet during storms, rain rushes off the land into storm drains where it mixes with chemical pollutants and dog feces from roads and parking lots and excess nutrients and pesticides from lawns and gardens, flowing into rivers and marshes and washing over the coastal eelgrass that nurtures and protects young fish and shellfish, the “seed corn” of New England’s seafood industry.

Coastal pollution – along with rising temperatures, gas and oil drilling, mineral mining, ocean acidification and industrial fishing methods – is putting extreme pressure on New England’s fish and shellfish stocks. I learned that last week at the North Shore Technology Council’s Sustainability Forum at the Cummings Center in Beverly, where Conservation Law Foundation marine expert Peter Shelley said the demand for fish and shellfish is growing even as fossil fuels are heating the atmosphere and warming the oceans, sending some species to their doom. If we want marine fish to thrive, they need healthy environments in which to grow…

Read the full op-ed here.

CLF at Our Ocean Conference 2016: The Gulf of Maine Requires Our Attention

At the third annual international Our Ocean Conference earlier this month, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, 136 new initiatives on marine conservation and protection – valued at $5.24 billion – were committed, and more than 1.5 million square miles of newly protected marine areas were established.

In between commitments from the countries of Sri Lanka and Panama, Conservation Law Foundation Vice President and Director of Ocean Conservation Dr. Priscilla Brooks took to the microphone to address heads of states and environment ministers from around the world. On this global stage, we announced an $8 million commitment to address climate impacts in the Gulf of Maine, where water temperatures are rising faster than virtually any other ocean area in the world.

Earlier in the week, President Obama made history when he announced the permanent protection of the first marine habitats in the Atlantic: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Covering almost 5,000 square miles, this designation will protect centuries-old coral formations, endangered marine mammals and other treasured marine life, and will provide a living laboratory for continued scientific discovery.Our commitment includes working with partners to reduce regional carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and to increasing the climate resiliency of the Gulf of Maine by protecting important habitats such as Cashes Ledge.

In coalition with groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Pew Charitable Trusts, New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium and many other educational organizations, marine scientists, and others, CLF advocated for the permanent protection of not just the three canyons and four seamounts that made the cut for the final monument area, but also for two additional deep-sea canyons and an area in the Gulf of Maine called Cashes Ledge.

With our renewed commitment, CLF’s efforts will continue. With so many leaders committing to ocean protections, the ocean’s importance to climate change solutions is clear.

The Gulf of Maine: High in Importance; Highly in Distress

According to scientist Andy Pershing, who in 2014 published a paper saying the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of ocean areas, temperatures used to increase by about 0.05 degrees per year, from 1982 until 2004. But in the years since, that pace sped up – increasing by about a half-degree per year. That’s 10 times faster than normal.

Certain atmospheric events could be pushing heat into the Gulf, and the complexity of the area’s ecosystems may contribute – but scientists aren’t sure about the exact causes behind this alarming trend.

What is certain, however, is that it’s a major problem.

From lobsters moving northward in search of cooler temperatures, to weakening species gene pools that could disrupt entire food webs, a warmer Gulf of Maine has the potential to wreak havoc on our fisheries, recreational activities, and even tourism, which contributes significantly to healthy coastal economies. What’s needed to solve this problem is likely just as complex as the Gulf of Maine itself.

That’s why CLF is taking a multi-pronged approach, and that’s why it was important to announce our commitment on a global platform. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is necessary and prudent, and will remain an unwavering key component of any strategy combating climate change in the years to come.

But an additional commitment to resiliency is particularly key for the Gulf of Maine. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was excellent and unprecedented progress, and we must expand upon that progress by designating a similar fully protected marine reserve in the Gulf of Maine.

Large marine reserves are critical reference sites for scientists to understand how increasing ocean temperatures, increased ocean acidity, and increased freshwater flow into the Gulf of Maine are changing species productivity and ecosystem function.

Scientists also believe fully protected marine areas are more resilient to the negative effects of climate change than their unprotected counterparts. According to regional marine expert and Mystic Aquarium scientist Dr. Peter Auster, “As human activities reach deeper and deeper into the sea, it will be critically important to have places that we protect in perpetuity to serve as reservoirs of the genetic diversity within species that could allow them to adapt to new conditions caused by a changing climate.”

A comprehensive body of research by Auster and another regional marine scientist, Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, was presented in March that showed how key areas – the entire Canyons and Seamounts area along with the Cashes Ledge area – were scientifically worthy of this full level of protection.

Cashes Ledge has an abundance of marine species and a wide variety of habitats, and is considered a “biodiversity hotspot.” It is well-documented by marine ecologists, and its beauty has been captured by National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. Since 2012, Cashes Ledge has inspired its own constituency of advocates who may never set a flipper in Cashes’ waters, but will campaign to permanently protect it for as long as it takes.

We are incredibly thankful for the leadership of President Obama and the State Department, and for Senator Richard Blumenthal and additional New England members of congress for making the proposal to protect New England’s canyons and seamounts a reality.

In the words of renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle: “Now, let’s finish the job!”

Click here to say “Thank You” to President Obama for the first marine national monument in the U.S. Atlantic!

An Ocean Warming: Sea Level Rise

In a previous post, we explored changing ocean chemistry through the phenomenon known as ocean acidification, and the effects of it on the people and species that call the Gulf of Maine home.

However, there is another important piece of the puzzle. As ocean water becomes warmer and more acidic, it expands and swells. This increase in volume, combined with fast-melting arctic sea and land ice, causes substantial changes in sea level – which can wreak havoc on our coastlines.

Numerous studies have shown that the East Coast, ranging from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine, is experiencing this phenomenon, known widely as sea level rise, at a rate three to four times faster than the global average. In fact, researchers refer to the region as a “unique 1,000-kilometer-long hotspot” where the impacts will be “disproportionately felt.” For New England especially, sea level rise spells trouble because of the vulnerability of our coastal cities, utilities, and infrastructure – not to mention our strong dependence on our coastal economies.

Unquestionably, the threat of sea level rise demands our attention because frankly, this isn’t an issue to be discussed and acted upon at some point in the future – it is happening now.

Signs of sea level rise, including incidences of “sunny-day flooding” and storm surges, have shown that the threat is real and imminent. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the coasts of New Jersey and New York, we saw the massive destruction that sea level rise and strengthened storm surges can have on a city.

Fortunately, Boston missed the brunt of the storm, but having seen its impacts, it’s clear that Boston cannot wait until it is too late or until a disaster like super-storm Sandy strikes to begin planning.

It is paramount that we have the necessary groundwork laid out so Boston, and New England at large, is able to adapt to the issue. Through the creation and implementation of forward-thinking policies, the consequences of sea level rise can be lessened. In most cases, with adequate energy and resources devoted to the issue, we will be able to anticipate some of what is to come and preemptively address the areas in which attention is immediately needed.

Some research and planning is already happening. Sea Change Boston has an interactive map which shows a variety of possible scenarios for what Boston might look like – and which areas might be underwater – depending upon the incidence of major storms over time. This map is based upon projections that global sea levels are projected to rise 1-2 feet by 2050. And the Boston Harbor Association put together additional maps showing the impacts of sea level rise to Boston and the surrounding areas if the sea level rises 2.5 feet, 5 feet, or 7.5 feet.

With the Gulf of Maine warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of other ocean areas, we in New England must be prepared with policies focusing on protection, adaptation, and/or accommodation to sea level rise, all of which will be critical in shaping how we respond to this imminent threat. It is only a matter of time before a rising sea level will begin impacting our infrastructure, transportation, and even our safety.

 

 

An Ocean Warming: Ocean Acidification, Lobster, and the Need for More Research

Year after year, temperatures in the Gulf of Maine’s waters have risen at unprecedented rates, a result of the same increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide derived from human activity) responsible for climate change.

This has caused a slew of problems for the marine life in the area – and it also means serious trouble for the ocean’s biogeochemical composition. The ocean has always served as Earth’s largest “carbon sink,” meaning that naturally occurring and industrially produced carbon dioxide is dissolved into seawater and, through a chemical synthesis process, forms carbonic acid.

Carbonic acid breaks down into ions that increase the ocean’s acidity. Over time, marine species have evolved alongside this process in a steady transformation leading to a balanced pH for the ocean.

But, as humans have deepened their addiction to climate-warming fossil fuels, more and more carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere – meaning the ocean is taking on more carbon dioxide than ever before. These drastic increases change the ocean’s pH level, throwing it off balance and making it more acidic.

Learning as we go

The full effects of ocean acidification are not yet entirely known, but we have begun to see its effects on certain species. The group of species most threatened by ocean acidification are some of the most important to New England’s coastal economy: the ‘calcifiers’ – lobsters, scallops, oysters and other fish that use the carbonate and calcium ions dissolved in seawater to build their shells.

As the water becomes more and more acidic, it becomes harder to for these species to make and maintain their shells. And as they devote more energy to constructing their shells, less energy can be given to other essential processes, like eating or reproduction.

An uptick in shell disease threatens the fishery

For the American Lobster, ocean acidification has been shown to have devastating effects on the growth and shell building rates of juveniles, making them significantly more susceptible to threats like predation and disease.

A shell disease that creates unsightly lesions in the lobster’s hard exoskeleton, for example, had previously been thwarted by colder water temperatures. But that disease has now slowly begun to creep its way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine. Given the increasing vulnerability of lobsters, and juveniles in particular, this shell disease and other threats have the potential to inflict serious harm on the species, the fishery, and New England’s economy as a whole.

A Lesson in Taking Initiative

The threats facing our oceans due to ocean acidification have prompted several states to take the initiative to begin to address the regional impacts of coastal and ocean acidification. This spring, Massachusetts senators and representatives are working on a bill that will create a special commission to examine the existing and potential effects of ocean acidification on both ecologically and economically important species in the waters off of Massachusetts.

This bill, Resolve H. 716, follows a rough framework laid out by states like Washington and Maine who have already approved commissions to confront the threats of ocean acidification.

In a recent roundtable forum, Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating emphasized that thorough research on ocean acidification is critical because without the best scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know how Massachusetts should take action.

Following in Washington’s footsteps is an excellent starting point for this work, however the situation facing Massachusetts and Maine (and New England at large) is unique. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists are witnessing changes in temperature and pH more rapidly and dramatically than almost anywhere else in the world – and its waters face a unique stressor due to the arctic ice melt and the resulting influx of freshwater. On top of the environmental factors, New England is especially vulnerable due to its economic dependence on susceptible species such as lobster.

Next Steps

There’s no question that establishing a devoted task force to study ocean acidification and what it means for the people and species in Massachusetts and New England will be helpful. With the support of strong science and the engaged voices of all stakeholders, addressing New England’s unique ocean acidification challenges is an important step in addressing climate change in our region.

An Ocean Warming: Atlantic Cod and Northern Shrimp Search for Colder Water

Perhaps no other New England species has felt the effects of the Gulf of Maine’s rapid warming like the fabled Gulf of Maine cod. An iconic species since its discovery centuries ago off of New England’s coast, cod profoundly impacted the way our region developed, and has shaped our coastal economies.

Today, however, the state of the species looks much different, with cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine hovering around three percent of what scientists say are sustainable levels. In an attempt to quell the overfishing of cod, restrictions on fishing quotas have been enacted. However, instead of seeing the cod stocks rebound, the numbers have continued to plummet.

There are two reasons for this: First, continued fishing pressure hasn’t allowed for enough of an opportunity for cod populations to recover. The other reason? You guessed it: drastic warming due to climate change.

Cod’s home is no longer the comfort zone

Climate change has led to warming ecosystems all over the world, but the Gulf of Maine is experiencing this warming trend faster than most. Cod, like every species, has a range of temperatures at which they can live comfortably, which in turn makes a range of geographical areas suitable for them. Historically, the Gulf of Maine has been at the southern boundary of their range. But, with Gulf temperatures rising due to climate change, cod are now starting to move north in search of cooler temperatures.

Because of this shift, restrictions on fishing quotas, even if effective on their own, have failed – as they didn’t account for what would happen due to warming waters.

As scientists and fishery managers have begun digesting this information and its implications, they are increasingly calling for something called “ecosystem-based management,” a management principle that considers the environmental factors in play in a given ecosystem. With widespread use, this broader understanding of what’s happening, and why, could provide a brighter outlook for the future of Gulf of Maine cod.

Northern shrimp headed further north

Another Gulf of Maine species, northern shrimp (pandalus borealis), face a similar situation. This small crustacean is an integral part of the Gulf of Maine food web. It’s unique because it is hermaphroditic, meaning the shrimp first mature as males at around two and a half years of age, and then about a year later develop into females. Northern shrimp feed on plankton and benthic invertebrates, and are then prey for several important species of fish, including cod, redfish, and hake.

For decades, the northern shrimp fishery thrived, until a few years ago, when stocks showed massive declines and low levels of shrimp reaching the age when they’re large enough to be fished. Particularly warm water temperatures during what is known as the “ocean heat wave” of 2012 caused stocks in the Gulf of Maine to drop even more dramatically. Although heavy fishing pressure is partly to blame for the driving the stocks down, scientists also point to the shockingly low levels of fishable shrimp. As the northern shrimp’s lifecycle is highly dependent on temperature fluctuations – with colder temperatures producing higher levels of fishable shrimp – the decline can be linked to warmer waters.

Northern shrimp, like cod, have a narrow range of temperatures in which they can thrive and, similarly, the Gulf of Maine is at the southern end of their range.

Long-term fishery closure a warning sign

Since 2013, the northern shrimp fishing seasons have been closed entirely. With ocean temperatures predicted to continue their warming trend and the species’ already vulnerable status, it looks increasingly bleak for the fishery.

Little by little, we are losing cod and shrimp to colder waters, and others soon may follow. It’s clear the Gulf of Maine and its composition is changing. That’s why plans to mitigate climate change must pay close attention to oceans and the warning signs they’re giving. And in the meantime, fishery managers must do everything within their power to ensure that management strategies incorporate the best climate science possible.

 

 

An Ocean Warming: Climate Change in the Gulf of Maine

The effects of climate change can be seen all over the world – whether it’s the severe droughts in California, rapid sea-level rise in the Indo-Pacific, or stronger storm systems, the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change are seemingly everywhere, and the Gulf of Maine is no exception.

Multiple studies have recently shown that the Gulf of Maine, like most of our planet’s oceans, is warming. However, what sets the Gulf of Maine apart is the alarming rate at which this warming is occurring: Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.

Granted, the Gulf of Maine has been warming for some time, with a steady rate of about 0.05 degrees per year from 1982 to 2004. But we’re now seeing a substantially accelerated rate in warming, about ten times faster than that – warming by approximately a half-degree per year!

How does climate change impact the Gulf of Maine?

Although scientists are still speculating on the explanation for these accelerated warming trends, there is no question about their negative effects.

  • Countless fish stocks have shifted northwards in search of colder temperatures, leaving fisheries struggling in their absence. And as these species migrate out of the Gulf of Maine, other fish, marine mammals, and seabirds that rely on them for food are now left scrambling, in some instances, to avoid starvation. The Atlantic Puffin, for example, once a critically endangered seabird, is now facing a new challenge: species such as white hake and Atlantic herring – both essential elements in the diets for puffin hatchlings – are seeing a shift in geographical range as they move to colder and deeper waters.
  • Diseases that were never before present in the Gulf of Maine have now carved out their place and threaten species. An epizootic shell disease that plagued southern New England waters for years is now cropping up in the Gulf of Maine and poses a serious danger for crustaceans – primarily the American lobster.
  • Non-native and invasive species like green crabs, longfin squid, and black sea bass have been able to move their way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine, throwing the delicate balance of the entire ecosystem out of sync.
  • Our coasts are under threat from sea-level rise due to changes in density: As water gets warmer, it expands, presenting small towns and major cities alike with an entirely new set of challenges for the future.
  • And the very chemistry of the Gulf of Maine is transforming. Salinity and acidity levels are changing due to increases in precipitation, the rapid melting of Arctic ice, and the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Chemistry? Sea-level rise? Invasive species? If this all sounds overwhelming, you’re not alone. That’s why we’re introducing this blog series, An Ocean Warming, to explore the impacts of climate change in the Gulf of Maine on the species, industries, and people that depend on its health.

Through regular posts focusing on different aspects of this complex issue, we hope to share insights on what the future and fate of the Gulf of Maine will look like – and how we can understand, mitigate, and adapt to this new reality.

 

Happy New Year from New England Ocean Odyssey!

Happy New Year, New England ocean lovers! Here are some of New England Ocean Odyssey’s highlights from 2015:

We featured some special species from areas rarely seen with the human eye:

Atlantic Treasures of the Deep

We brought you news about the threats facing our ocean’s wildlife – from overfishing and poor fishery management, to climate change, to oil exploration.

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

The Climate Change Connection: The Warming Gulf of Maine Needs Protected Areas

Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

We featured sea creatures each week with our summer Fish Friday series.

Fish Friday Finale

And we went back for another dive at Cashes Ledge.

Beyond the data: Captivating moments at Cashes Ledge

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 2.0

In the fall, we ramped up our efforts to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

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

We learned that climate change is exacerbating an already poor outlook for Atlantic cod in New England.

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

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

In 2016, we’ll keep fighting for a healthy ocean in New England, to protect our wildlife and our coastal communities. Thank you for your support!

The Climate Change Connection: The Warming Gulf of Maine Needs Protected Areas

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –President Theodore Roosevelt 

Considering how quickly our planet is warming, and what little is being done to combat it by our national government, this quote has never been more relevant or applicable.

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Here in New England, our ocean is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – with one study showing that the Gulf of Maine is warming 99% faster than ocean waters elsewhere on the planet. If that’s not alarming enough, we’re also seeing whole populations of species (such as lobster) moving toward colder waters – which could spell disaster for New England’s economy. And, we are just beginning to understand the effects of ocean acidification on our shellfish populations, with much more to learn before we’ll know how to adapt.

But, what gives us hope amidst this dire news is that we New Englanders, whose lives – and livelihoods – are intertwined with a healthy ocean, have long been champions and leaders for its protection.

Conservation Law Foundation has advocated for ocean conservation in New England for decades, from our fight to stop oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank in the 70s, to our work to protect our iconic cod fishery from extinction, to our commitment to the state and regional ocean planning processes. Today, we’re rallying the public to support the protection of two of the Atlantic’s most fragile and vulnerable areas – the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts. We’re imploring President Obama to create a Marine National Monument, which can give these special places the highest possible level of protection.

You may be thinking – what does any of this have to do with climate change? The answer is this: Conservation and climate change are inherently connected. President Roosevelt, who uttered the words above, understood the importance of conserving such vital places – he knew that some places were just too beautiful, unique, and fragile to be disturbed or exploited, even if resources such as gold, oil, or gas were to be found there. What he couldn’t have known then is something we do know now: Creating fully protected marine areas is a critical step in our defense against climate change.

Studies of protected areas show that the robust ecosystems they contain are better able to withstand the stress of warming temperatures. The complete and relatively pristine habitats at Cashes Ledge and the Coral Canyons and Seamounts should be kept intact ­– so they can continue to be used as an underwater laboratory for marine scientists as we work urgently to identify how climate change is impacting our oceans and how we can best respond.

If and when the day comes that we are able to stop or even reverse global warming, we need to have done the legwork now to prepare. Will species damaged from warmer temperatures recover and thrive again? Will ocean plant life maintain the ability to provide us with the oxygen we need? Will our children ever get to gaze in wonder at a North Atlantic right whale breaching the ocean’s surface?

We can’t solve climate change in a day. We know it will take a comprehensive, long-term effort. But we should do what can be done today – right now, with what we have, in New England to protect our most significant places for our children and grandchildren. We believe a Marine National Monument designation is the first, best course of action for New England’s ocean right now.