Crab Chowder?

In 2012, northeast sea surface temperatures reached an all-time high. Many speculate that rising water temperatures have contributed to a record high catch of 126 million pounds of American lobster, Homerus americanus, in the Gulf of Maine. However, the steady rise in New England’s sea surface temperatures may have also made southern areas of New England inhospitable for lobster. In a recent interview with AccuWeater, Maine Lobstermen Association’s Patrice McCarron said, “In southern New England, Buzzard Bay, Mass., and the waters off of Rhode Island, temperatures in the Long Island Sound area have become too warm for lobsters.” Lobster catch in these areas has plummeted since the 1990s.

The warming trend in New England waters has caused alarm for local fishermen, and we’re only beginning to understand the ways climate change might affect our fisheries. While some treasured New England species may relocate father north, it’s possible that other species will move into this region and create new economic opportunities.

We’ve written before about some of these species moving north as water temperatures rise, and now we can add another to the roster—blue crabs. Although blue crabs are traditionally caught off Maryland and Virginia, fishermen in Long Island Sound have been seeing more of them lately. Some think that, in time, Long Island Sound could replicate the blue crab fishery of southern areas like Chesapeake Bay.

The blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, whose Latin name can be translated to mean “beautiful savory swimmer,” is the Maryland state crustacean and the most valuable shellfish in the mid-Atlantic region. The crabs can grow to be around 4 in long and 9 in wide, weighing around 1 pound, and reaching maturity in 12 to 18 months. The bottom-dwelling blue crab can live in a range of salinities, feeding off of crabs, claims, snails, eelgrass, sea lettuce and decayed vegetation. Blue crabs can be found all along the Atlantic Coast, with a prominent population in Chesapeake Bay presently suffering from habitat degradation and overfishing.

Could Maryland’s pride species create a new industry in New England Waters? The blue crab, caught for sale in both hard and soft shell forms, is currently sold at a market price in Maryland of $39.25 per dozen. With the growing blue crab population and a high demand market, does New England clam chowder have a new competitor on the way?

Scientists are careful to note that the long-term effects of climate change on species like blue crabs are still far too uncertain to predict the future of a fishery, but one thing is for sure—New England’s ocean is changing, and marine life is on the move.

Image credit: Benjamin Wilson, Flickr

Cool Fish, Hot Water III – Black Sea Bass

Previous posts in our Cool Fish, Hot Water series have introduced two of the species that are moving into the Gulf of Maine as water temperatures rise: seahorses and longfin squid. While seahorses are still an occasional visitor, New England’s longfin squid fishery has taken off in response to squid’s increased abundance.

This time, we’ll focus on another species with commercial potential—black sea bass.

Black sea bass are instantly recognizable by their dark brownish or bluish color, and have a very unusual life history. Most black sea bass are female when they reach maturity, but as they grow to about a foot in length (2-5 years of age), they suddenly change sex and become male for the remainder of their lives.

While the life history may be unusual, the fish itself is pretty common – to the south anyway. Black sea bass have historically been found throughout the mid-Atlantic and south to the Florida Keys. The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries says they “generally do not occur in the Gulf of Maine”, and the area around Cape Cod was once the northern edge of their range.

But that range seems to be shifting. As On the Water editor Kevin Blinkoff told the New Bedford Standard Times, “Cape Cod forms a barrier for a lot of fish. It’s been the northernmost limit for a lot of species. In recent years, though, there are fish such as black sea bass…that were thought of as a more southern New England fish that are appearing in Boston Harbor and along the North Shore.”

Black sea bass are now starting to appear north of Cape Cod, where they were once a rarity—and along the south edge of the Cape, they’re suddenly abundant.

This rapid change in the abundance of black sea bass has put strain on fisheries managers. Black sea bass are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which jointly set a quota for the fishery. 51% of the quota is allocated to recreational fishermen, while commercial fishermen get the other 49%. The commercial quota is divided up between the Atlantic states to manage independently.

Currently, the recreational catch limit is 2.26 million pounds and the commercial limit is 2.17 million pounds. Massachusetts gets 13% of this commercial quota. Over the past several years, Massachusetts has chosen to have two short seasons for black sea bass—one in the spring and one in the summer. That system worked well when sea bass weren’t as abundant, but as the fish became more plentiful in Massachusetts, regulators were having a hard time controlling the catch during the first season. There was little left to catch for summer fishermen, and the fishery was regularly exceeding its quota.

This year, Massachusetts regulators decided to eliminate the spring season entirely to better control the catch—a move that angered many fishermen, who say limiting the number of permits, not shortening the fishing season, is the best way to limit the harvest.

Now many fishermen are asking the ASMFC to address the bigger question: are black sea bass becoming more abundant everywhere, or are they moving north—and how should fisheries managers respond?

Regulators agree that figuring out the details of black sea bass distribution will require more research. An official with the ASMFC who oversees black sea bass recently told the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, “We are investigating different reasons for changes in the availability of the stock.”

Hopefully, fisheries scientists will soon determine whether more abundant sea bass in New England are a sign of recovery or redistribution. In the meantime, New England’s fishermen and divers can enjoy another new face in the Gulf of Maine.

Photo credit: Alex Shure

Live Fast, Die Young, Shift North – Longfin Squid (Cool Fish, Hot Water Part II)

This is Part II in our “Cool Fish, Hot Water” series. I know what you’re thinking, squid aren’t fish, but we weren’t sure we had enough fodder for a “Cool Cephalopod, Hot Water” series, so may the squid forgive us, but today they are fish. -Ed.

Things are heating up in New England’s ocean. Last month Leah Fine posted an outstanding piece on a warming trend in the Gulf of Maine, and the new faces we are starting to see off our coasts as a result. I can make no better introduction to the topic than Leah has already done, so I’m just going to dive right in and talk about another of the newcomers we’ve recently welcomed. Or, more correctly, an occasional visitor that seems to be making itself at home lately.

Longfin squid are no strangers to Atlantic waters, but they usually congregate from southern Georges Bank down to Cape Hatteras. Migrating seasonally, longfin squid spend the colder months offshore along the edge of the continental shelf, and come inshore in the spring as the water warms up, starting in the southern end of their range and proceeding north along the coast to Cape Cod.

But, according to CLF’s Peter Shelley, “Squid have been everywhere on the north shore of Massachusetts these past two summers. People were camped out on Marblehead’s public docks all night, it seemed, removing buckets and buckets of squid every day. Even I could catch them… and they were delicious.”

They are pretty tasty – if you enjoy calamari you’ve probably eaten them yourself. But Peter was surprised to see so many of them lately. “I have never seen them in such swarms before in all my years on the waters here,” he said recently. Peter’s location on the north shore of Massachusetts puts him in a front row seat for observing a range extension of commercially viable concentrations of longfin squid.

He’s not the only one who’s noticing the change. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has listed longfin squid as an “emerging fishery” of Mid-Atlantic “stocks on the move.” According to their recent report on the topic, “centers of population for butterfish, longfin squid, summer flounder, and black sea bass have been steadily moving north since the 1990s.” They predict that the changes we are seeing in our ocean right now will have “significant effects on fisheries worldwide.” One species moving around a little bit may not seem like a big deal, but when you put that species in its ecosystem context, you can understand why scientists, fishermen, and regulators are getting worried.

Longfin squid have fleeting lives – their entire population is estimated to turn over very six months – but they are an important prey species for some of our commercial and recreational fishing favorites, like striped bass, bluefish, cod, haddock, and flounder. In turn, they rely on a diverse buffet themselves for food. When small they eat plankton, and graduate to crustaceans and small fish like mackerel, herring, and anchovies as they get bigger (is anyone else getting hungry?). They have also been known to eat each other, the little cannibals. In short — they are an important strand of the complex web of life in our ocean.

Nature changes and animals move around all the time, so any one species turning up in an unusual place or in unusual numbers doesn’t necessarily mean a big shift is happening, but the squid are just one of so many species on the go right now, that it’s hard not to worry things are really changing fast in our ocean. It will be challenging to keep up with the changes from commercial, regulatory, and conservation standpoints – but I think we’d all better give it our best shot. Keep checking back over the next few weeks and we’ll update you on more of our newest arrivals in New England’s ocean.

Photo credit: Josh Cummings