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

In 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.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures

 

Special Species Round-Up: 6 Creatures found in Cashes Ledge

If you are familiar with New England Ocean Odyssey, you know we love Cashes Ledge, a majestic 25-mile undersea mountain range and biological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine.Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

You know that this natural laboratory offers scientists the chance to explore a relatively pristine and unique ecosystem, to discover and observe rare and endangered species, and to hypothesize about what the greater Gulf of Maine looked like before the commercial fishing industry existed.

You know that Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the mountain chain, rises from a depth of 460 feet all the way up into the photic zone (exposure to sunlight), just 40 feet below the ocean’s surface. And you know that Ammen Rock disrupts the dominant Gulf of Maine current, swirling nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters from the seafloor to the top of the water column, providing ideal conditions for a huge array of marine life including sponges, corals, anemones, predatory fish, sharks, whales, and more.

But what specific special species reside at Cashes Ledge, and what migratory visitors stop by throughout the year? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out!

1. (Unclassified) Blue Sponge

This species is so incredibly rare, it hasn’t even been sighted anywhere apart from the rocky walls of Cashes Ledge, let alone taxonomically classified. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn about this species. Cashes is also home to a variety of bright red, orange, and yellow sponges, including mounding sponges as big as footballs! Cod and Invertebrates

Cod swim under a wall of sponges and other invertebrates. Image via NOAA/ONMS

Sponges are primitive creatures that latch on to hard surfaces anywhere from the intertidal zone to the deep ocean floor. They filter feed by absorbing tiny organisms through incurrent (think “inbound”) pores and excreting waste through excurrent (“outbound”) pores. Many sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually.

 

2. Red Cod

You’ve read about, seen, and probably eaten Atlantic cod…but have you ever heard of red Atlantic cod? While genetic testing has yet to determine if this variation is a distinct species, Graham Sherwood, Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, hypothesizes that it is not. All cod eat high levels of carotenoids (natural pigments found in organisms such as crabs and worms), so it’s no surprise that some cod are red in color. But why are some red while most are olive-colored?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

An olive cod (top) and a red cod (bottom) swim through kelp forests at Cashes Ledge. Images via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.
Sherwood’s theory is that the red coloring is an adaptive advantage. Red cod typically permanently reside in shallower kelp forests, while olive-colored cod roam around deeper waters in the North Atlantic. The red coloring may be a U/V protectant or a form of camouflage for shallower waters. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if red cod are a separate species, or if they are just a colorful variation of olive-colored Atlantic cod.

Check out more Brian Skerry photos of red and olive-colored cod at Cashes Ledge.

 

3. Christmas Anemone

Urticina crassicornis, the Christmas anemone, resides on rock faces at depths up to about 100 feet and may grow to be a foot tall and 8 inches in diameter. It feeds on crabs, urchins, mussels, gastropods, chitons, barnacles, and fish by stinging and stunning prey with venomous cells found in the anemone’s tentacles.

The candy-striped shrimp, Lebbeus grandimanus, is immune to the Christmas anemone’s sting; the two organisms live in a commensal relationship whereby the anemone provides shelter for the shrimp, and the shrimp does not affect the anemone.

Red Anemone A Northern red anemone on a rock wall at Cashes Ledge. CLF/Brett Seymour.

 

 

 

 

4. Porbeagle

Cod and InvertebratesPorbeagle, Lamna nasus. Credit NMFS/E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley.

No, that’s not a white shark – it’s the great white’s lesser known relative, the porbeagle, Lamna nasus. The porbeagle can be easily distinguished from a white shark by its second dorsal fin (that tiny second bump on the shark’s back before its tail). These big guys can grow up to 11 ½ feet long and are highly migratory throughout the Northwest Atlantic. They tend to stay out of shallow waters along the coast, preferring pelagic waters from the surface to depths of 1000 feet. In the Gulf of Maine, they feed on mackerel, herring, other small fish and sharks, and squids.

NOAA listed the porbeagle as a “Species of Concern” for the Northwest Atlantic stock in 2006, the same year that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the subpopulation as endangered. Since the 1960s, overfishing has been a major threat to porbeagles, which are slow-growing with low productivity rates, making it difficult for populations to recover. In the U.S., the species is managed by the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing two 2010 proposals to list the porbeagle on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

 

5. North Atlantic Right Whale

The waters off the coast of New England get some magnificent, gigantic visitors. Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, hang out around New England and the Bay of Fundy in the summer and fall to feed on zooplankton and raise their young. They move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, often stopping at Cashes Ledge, where regular circulation of the water column produces plankton-rich waters. In the winter months, the whales typically migrate to birthing grounds in the coastal waters off the southeastern United States.

The North Atlantic Right Whale was subject to intensive whaling from the 1500s through 1935; populations off the east coast of North America are still struggling to recover, due in large part to boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whale with Provincetown lighthouse (Long Point) in the backgroundA North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay in front of Provincetown, MA. Image via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

 

6. Bubble Gum Coral

Deep-water coral colonies thrive in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. Paragorgia arborea, nicknamed bubble gum coral for its pink color, is a fan-shaped coral (aka “sea fan”…creative, right?) that typically inhabits exposed locations at depths of 600 to 4,300 feet. It can grow up to six meters tall, making it a real treasure for divers to spot. At Cashes Ledge, Paragorgia inhabits the hard-bottom basalt substrate.

Deep sea corals grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers. One sweep of a trawl net can destroy centuries of growth – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat.

Paragorgia

Paragorgia colonies in the New England Seamount chain. Image via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

These are just six of the marvelous, charismatic species that depend on the nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. If we are to protect them, we must start by protecting Cashes Ledge.

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!

Image via NOAA

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 2.0

Our dive team is back! Over the next two weeks the team will return to the Gulf of Maine and Cashes Ledge to explore more of New England’s beautiful ocean and marine life!

This year from June 1 to June 14, onboard the R/V Tioga, the team will travel the 100 miles off the coast to Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range in the center of the Gulf of Maine that rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The steep slopes and ridges of Cashes Ledge create internal waves that mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water. This mixing supports incredible productivity and biodiversity like no other place in the Gulf of Maine and gives rise to the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The unique ecological conditions draw in a rich diversity of marine species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to fish like cod, wolfish, and bluefin tuna to endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

Our dive last year captured breathtaking photographs and video of Cashes Ledge, the Isles of Shoals, and the inshore Gulf of Maine. This year, we will be able to go deeper than before – too far for the team to go themselves. Using an ROV, the team will explore down the flanks of the ledge all the way to the muddy basin below. Weather depending, we will also try to ascend the peak of Fippennies Ledge, just west of Cashes. Cashes Ledge harbors an assemblage of marine habitats and we want to see them all!

In addition to capturing stunning video and photo images of Cashes Ledge and other areas in the Gulf of Maine, including habitat and wildlife, the dive will serve to advance Dr. Jon Witman’s research on kelp, cod, and Cashes Ledge. Dr. Jon Witman is a marine ecologist who led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine and has spent decades studying invertebrate and fish communities on Cashes Ledge and other marine habitats in the region.

Much like last year, this year’s exact dive locations will depend on a lot factors like weather and visibility. We are off to a rainy start, but those clouds should clear soon, and we hope to head out on the water. Stay tuned over the next two weeks for more updates, and be sure to follow New England Ocean Odyssey and Conservation Law Foundation on Facebook and Twitter so you can explore with us and help build awareness and support for New England’s ocean. We look forward to revealing more of the amazing wonders beneath New England’s waves!

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.

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.

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.