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.

VIDEO: “Cashes Ledge: Jewel of the Gulf of Maine”

Check out this new video from the Witman Lab at Brown University, including highlights from their research and stunning video footage of Cashes Ledge – the jewel of the Gulf of Maine. Evan Kovacs’ video captures a macro view of the Cashes Ledge seascape, and some of the marine species who call the rocky ridges their home.

We must save this beautiful, vital place in the Gulf of Maine. Despite our efforts to show what a spectacular place this is, the White House has said Cashes Ledge isn’t under consideration for a Monument at this time. We know that the science is in our corner, and that the majority of voices speaking up about our campaign to protect this place are resoundingly supportive.

Click here to send a message to your U.S. Senators. Tell them that a Marine National Monument designation without Cashes Ledge is unacceptable and leaves New England’s most precious marine resources at risk.

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.

 

See you at Sea Rovers 2016!

The Boston Sea Rovers dive show is coming up, March 5-6, 2016, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Danvers, MA.

Join us as we present our seminar on Saturday at 11 am – Cashes Ledge: The Yellowstone of the North Atlantic, led by Dr. Jon Witman, WHOI videographer Evan Kovacs, and CLF’s director of ocean conservation, Dr. Priscilla Brooks. At the seminar, we’ll share stunning film footage from a recent expedition to Cashes Ledge, as well as findings from new scientific research. Dive in with us as we explore this special place that needs permanent protection.

Boston Sea Rovers is a non-profit organization founded by SCUBA-lovers, dedicated to amplifying awareness and appreciation for the ocean. Each year, ocean lovers convene at the show to participate in a weekend of films, compelling seminars, useful workshops, and more.

For more information and to register to attend, visit the Sea Rovers website. (You can register for one or both days.)

And don’t forget to stop by our booth (#52) to check out Brian Skerry’s photographs of our beautiful New England ocean, get updates from our CLF oceans team, and take a photo with us to share your reasons for supporting our campaign to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts. We can’t wait to see you there!

Winter Home of Maine Puffins Revealed

Photo credit: NPS / Jim Pfeiffenberger

This piece was originally posted on Audubon.org. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

By Stephen Kress

Surprising migration takes puffins north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then south to underwater “coral canyons and seamounts” and Cashes Ledge off New England

Until this summer, the winter home of Maine puffins was largely unknown, but that has suddenly changed with revelations discovered this year.

The background leading up to this year’s discovery demonstrates the value of perseverance. In 2011, two first generation puffin geolocators were recovered from birds tagged at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009 (geolocators do not transmit data and require recapture of the bird to download data).

The tags revealed a northward journey after the nesting season to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and north to the Labrador Sea, before a southward movement to the edge of the continental shelf for the remainder of the winter. This was big news–the first hint of the puffin’s then mysterious winter home. But these were just two birds and neither bird nested in subsequent years. This aroused suspicion that winter movements also could have been affected by the devices.

The quest for the puffin’s winter range continued in 2010-2012 when 38 smaller, new generation tags were attached to puffin leg bands. Although 30 of these were recovered and puffin behavior appeared normal, none contained data because of manufacturing defects. Despite this huge disappointment, 26 improved tags were attached to puffins in 2013 and 2014. By the summer of 2015, 20 of these were recovered and 17 contained useful data. These tags revealed a remarkable story.

The tagged puffins travelled northward in August to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence–a region known for abundant forage fish. The geolocators also showed that as days shortened, the puffins began heading south to the U.S. continental shelf–well offshore from New York and New Jersey where they spent the rest of the winter–before arriving back in Maine by early April. The exact routes remain a mystery.

Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress
Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress

The areas most frequented during the winter months were about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod–including an area known as New England’s “coral canyons and seamounts.” This vast, largely unexplored area includes canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, along with submerged mountains (seamounts) noted for colorful corals, some as large as small trees. Puffins are likely attracted to the region because of productive upwelling currents that offer abundant food–the same conditions that favor whales, porpoise, tuna, sailfish, and seabirds. Cashes Ledge, another underwater mount inside the Gulf of Maine, was also popular with puffins as it is for whales and other sea-life.

The discovery that puffins winter over these canyons and seamounts and Cashes Ledge provides another reason to protect these areas from fishing, mining, and energy development. An initiative is now underway to protect these important areas as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the United States. These discoveries were first shared by Project Puffin biologists this past week with a poster presentation at the 43rd annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group.

This research was made possible by donations from Project Puffins supporters, especially Bill and Maryanne Perks, Shirley Egan and the late Robert Wanner.

Learn more about these fascinating seabirds at projectpuffin.audubon.org

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!

Celebrating New England Lobsters on National Lobster Day

Cashes Ledge Lobster
A lobster at Cashes Ledge. Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that New Englanders love lobster. It’s weaved into our culture and history, and it’s unimaginable to think of New England without this famed summer seafood.

Few know that lobsters were once so plentiful in New England that Native Americans used them as fertilizer for their fields, and as bait for fishing. And before trapping was common, “catching” a lobster meant picking one up along the shoreline!

During World War II, lobster was viewed as a delicacy, so it wasn’t rationed like other food sources. Lobster meat filled a demand for protein-rich sources, and continued to increase in popularity in post-war years, which encouraged more people to join the industry.

Popular ever since, now when most people are asked what comes to mind when they think of New England, seafood – especially lobster – is typically at the top of the list.

An industry under threat

We love our New England lobster, but there’s evidence suggesting they’re in danger of moving away from their longtime home. That’s because lobster is under threat from climate change, the effects of which can already be seen on this particular species.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas. Until last winter’s uncharacteristically cold temperatures, the prior few years saw an increase in catchable lobster – as the warmer temperatures cause them to molt early, and they move toward inshore waters after molting. However, continued warming will ultimately encourage the lobsters to move north to find colder waters, where they spend the majority of their time.

This is already happening in southern New England, where the industry is already suffering, seeing lobsters migrating northward.

And we’re still learning about the potential for damage caused by ocean acidification, as well as how lobsters may be affected by an increase in colder than usual New England winters.

As we celebrate one of New England’s iconic species on National Lobster Day, let’s remember that slowing down climate change is an important priority for ensuring that future generations can enjoy not Canadian or Icelandic lobster, but New England lobster. Click here to support Conservation Law Foundation’s efforts on fighting climate change.