Ocean Immersion in a Land-locked Town: Creating a Mini Cashes Ledge

The quiet hum of the chiller and protein skimmer can be heard in the halls of Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire, as a large 100-gallon “Educational Aquatic Ecosystem” sits near the windows of the large cafeteria in the middle of the building. The tank’s glass bears the unmistakable green tinge of a new phytoplankton bloom. On a submerged rock, a barnacle colony is happily feeding for the first time in weeks. Thanks to an enterprising senior, Hanover High School, perched on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, has become home to its own tiny marine ecosystem.

Step aside, model volcano – Alex Taylor and Hanover High School are taking science projects to the next level.

Spurred by his lifelong passion for the ocean, Alex, with support from a few teachers, the Ecosystems Management Club, and a grant from a local community organization, spearheaded the establishment of a fully functioning aquarium system that mimics the conditions of Cashes Ledge, a biological hotspot in the heart of the Gulf of Maine.

The group was able to build “an unusual learning model . . . that has become a classroom” remarks Scott Stokoe, the Sustainability Curriculum Coordinator for the school, who helped Alex set up the system over the course of a semester.

The ecosystem is now well established after several months of intense research and communication with local experts. The setup also boasts a “closed loop” system: Rather than constantly feeding the marine life and periodically cleaning its waste by hand, the closed loop system aims to represent how material and energy flows in an ecosystem, with conditions similar to Cashes Ledge.

Why Cashes Ledge?

Cashes Ledge, an area approximately 80 miles off the coast of New Hampshire, is a unique and powerful resource for researchers, educators, and tourists. Called the “Yellowstone of the North Atlantic” by renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, this massive underwater mountain range is home to some of the most iconic and unique marine species in the Atlantic.

Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.
Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.

The fabled Atlantic Cod can be seen swimming alongside blue and basking sharks against a backdrop of the Atlantic’s largest and deepest cold-water kelp forest. This rich biodiversity is mirrored in the Educational Aquatic Ecosystem, albeit on a much smaller scale.

While Cashes Ledge is not easily accessible for most people – especially for students who live on the New Hampshire-Vermont border – the miniature ecosystem is an easy way for the students to gain a firsthand appreciation for the unique and dynamic organisms that call Cashes Ledge home.

Alex, Scott Stokoe, and science teacher Jeannie Kornfeld hope that with improved ecological literacy that comes with studying an area that is part of New Hampshire’s history and current affairs, the project will encourage students to engage more deeply with environmental issues. For example, by studying this system in French class, students learned about the economic and historical value of cod and its impact on French culture while studying the language. By gaining exposure to this incredible educational resource, students in a wide range of classes have grown interested in what their region’s ocean has to offer.

Stokoe points to this project as an excellent example of the transdisciplinary application of ecological literacy that is called for by Environmental Studies professor David Orr. Kornfeld, the science teacher who assisted Alex with the tank, agrees, saying that the “vision is to get people using the system as part of an effort to teach sustainability across curricula.”

Already, this vision is becoming a reality. More than 200 students worked with the system in various classes this past spring; students can also learn more about it through the ecosystems management club.

Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for many years for permanent protection of special areas like Cashes Ledge, including our current push for President Obama to designate it as a Marine National Monument.

We hope that Cashes Ledge is kept intact for generations to come, so that students and educators like the ones at Hanover High School can continue to engage with a local ecosystem and become involved and informed New England ocean lovers.

Take Action to permanently protect Cashes Ledge today.

 

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

Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

This is the second in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.    

Oil exploration. Pipelines. Tar sands. Oil tankers. Spills. These should be words of our past, not our future.

 

Yet at a time when climate change is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing modern society, some recent developments involving these terms have me scratching my head. First, our Canadian neighbors just approved new oil exploration leases to the south of Nova Scotia that come disturbingly close to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, areas known to be sensitive to environmental shocks.

And now, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal, submitted last week, would more than double the number of oil tankers carrying tar sands oil – from 115 to more than 280 each year – through the Bay of Fundy and down New England’s coast.

Double the tankers means double the risk for a catastrophic accident or oil spill. Just one major spill could devastate our most precious underwater wild places, while destroying the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

Climate change compels us to move away from fossil fuels, yet oil companies press on searching every nook and cranny of the planet to find it, not minding the disturbances and threats they’re posing to vulnerable ecosystems, endangered species, and local economies.

Drilling Deja-vu

This isn’t the first time oil or gas exploration has threatened the Gulf of Maine. Since the 1970s, energy companies have clamored for approval to drill for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coastline, including the U.S.-controlled portion of Georges Bank and along the coast of Canada.

In 1978, Conservation Law Foundation partnered with fishermen and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to block oil exploration on Georges Bank – winning the first successful injunction against offshore drilling in the United States. CLF argued that oil leasing was inconsistent with the then two-year-old federal fisheries law (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act) because the risks were potentially catastrophic to the marine wildlife the region’s fishermen depend on to make a living.

Ultimately, in the early 1980s, an exploratory dig was approved but turned up no oil in Georges Bank. Led by New England’s Congressional delegation, CLF persuaded Congress to pass a funding moratorium on all future Georges Bank drilling. Canadian fishermen and activists soon followed suit, citing the U.S.’s example to fight off similar drilling efforts on their side of Georges Bank. A Canadian drilling moratorium on Georges Bank was established in 1988, and now extends to 2022.

In 2008, the U.S. moratorium was lifted and exploration off our shores is now only blocked by soft, interim no-drill agreements. Meanwhile, with our northern neighbor more aggressively pursuing offshore oil and gas, Canadian leases in the North Atlantic Ocean have been steadily marching south, getting closer and closer to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Too Close for Comfort

To make matters worse, Canada has permitted the oil companies drilling nearby – such as the one at Shelburne Basin, just 75 miles east of Georges Bank – to forego keeping emergency equipment close at hand. This allows them almost two weeks to cap an oil well blowout should an accident occur, effectively sanctioning the catastrophic damage a blowout would cause. In comparison, in U.S. waters surrounding Alaska, oil companies have a maximum of 24 hours to put emergency caps on drilling blow-outs.

The risk to New England from the explorations in Shelburne Basin and other areas east of Georges Bank? Toxins could get caught up in the pronounced southwest-flowing Maine Coastal Current that’s instrumental in lobster larvae distribution throughout coastal Maine – dealing a potentially devastating blow to Maine’s most important fishery.

And the dispersants used in the cleanup of a spill can be even more harmful to sea life than the oil itself. Toxic pollutants from the Canadian sites east of Georges Bank could easily get picked up by the upwelling currents that account for the legendary productivity of the Georges Bank system – transforming those upwelling currents from being life-giving to life-taking.

The increased risks in the U.S. from Canadian exploratory drilling may seem remote but they are, nonetheless, real and potentially catastrophic. Industry claims of safety are belied by real, recent disasters like the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

These encroaching Canadian leases also create a troubling precedent. Once oil or gas drilling begins in this area of the North Atlantic – even if it is technically across the border – the arguments to maintain “no-drill” agreements in the U.S. are weakened. And although there is little industry interest in Georges Bank for oil, the industrial appetite for developing natural gas wells so close to the U.S. northeast is likely growing – and who knows what that future might hold.

The Big Picture for New England

The threat from offshore oil development isn’t just to marine wildlife, but also to our New England way of life: fishing, surfing, whale watching, beach combing (and the millions of tourist dollars that go along with them) – so much of our economy depends on a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and abundant marine wildlife.

From start to finish – preliminary seismic testing, drilling, oil spills, chemicals used in cleanup, and transport – the marine oil and gas exploration and drilling process is risky, harmful, and unnecessary. Further environmental review will be required in Canada before production drilling could start. The U.S. State Department needs to protest any further activities as forcefully as possible.

New England is already at risk from climate change, above and below the water. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities. Rapidly warming waters cause species to move away in search of colder temperatures, potentially eliminating fisheries that have sustained regional economies for generations. Increasing ocean acidity jeopardizes the two most significant fisheries in New England: lobsters and sea scallops.

The last thing we need are more man-made threats to our ocean and all that it represents for us as New Englanders.

 

Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.

A Call for Protections

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineThe following was originally published in National Fisherman.

The Gulf of Maine is warming fast — faster than almost any other ocean area in the world. To say this is alarming is an understatement, and action is needed today to permanently protect large areas of the ocean, which scientists say is one of the best buffers against the disastrous effects of climate change.

To that end, a diverse group of ma­rine-oriented businesses, hundreds of marine scientists, aquaria, conservation organizations and members of the public are calling on the Obama administration to designate the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monuments in the Atlantic.

Conservation Law Foundation has worked for years to permanently protect the remarkable Cashes Ledge area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for a stunning array of ocean wildlife — from cod to endangered right whales, bluefin tuna to Atlantic wolffish — and a rare lush kelp forest. The New England canyons and seamounts similarly shelter an incredible breadth of sea life, including spectacular ancient coral formations. Public support is widespread and growing. In September, more than 600 people attended a sold-out event hosted by the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Society where scientists discussed why these places are unique natural treasures. More than 160,000 people have electronically petitioned the president for monument protection.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, there are no areas in the Atlantic that are fully protected as national monuments. But why monument protection?

Unlike fishery management closed areas or national marine sanctuaries, national monument designation protects against all types of commercial extraction that are harmful and can damage critical habitat: fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, and more.

Scientists say large-scale marine habitat protection is necessary to increase ocean resiliency in the face of climate change. Undisturbed underwater “laboratories” in places with relatively pristine habitats, like the Cashes Ledge area and the canyons and seamounts area, will be key in studying how — and how well — we are managing these already changing ocean ecosystems. These irreplaceable habitats can only play that role when protected in their entirety.

 

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

Current protections by the New England Fishery Management Council are critical but not sufficient, as they are temporary, only limited to commercial fish species, and any coral protections are only discretionary. A monument designation protects all sea life and makes that protection permanent. It would be managed by scientists and others with ecological expertise (including but not limited to fisheries expertise). Fishery management councils were not designed and are not in the business of protecting scientifically unique and ecologically critical areas in the ocean.

Permanent closure will also benefit collapsed fish populations like Atlantic cod, which would be able to rebuild and sustain themselves at healthy levels. Research is beginning to show that refuges could help struggling species like cod produce larger, older and significantly more productive females that could help recovery when their offspring eventually spill out to restock fishing in surrounding waters. The fishing industry is poised to benefit in the long term when commercially important fish are able to rebound.

Protecting the few unique marine places we have left is good for the fishermen and communities that rely on a healthy and abundant ocean for their livelihoods and is our obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of the article here.

Congressman Boehlert: New England’s ocean treasures deserve protection

This post is an excerpt from an opinion piece in The Patriot Ledger, in which former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, former Chair of the House Science Committee) expresses his support of Marine National Monument designation in New England. You can read the entire piece here.

In 2006, President George W. Bush wisely used his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to protect a vital ocean ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. Two years later, again in the Pacific, he protected other critically important marine areas characterized by reefs, atolls and vast underwater canyons.

All together he created four Marine National Monuments covering more than 600,000 square miles. Preserving these ecologically important marine habitats was essential for the residents of Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific islands, who depend heavily on a healthy and productive ocean. These monuments enjoy overwhelming local support.

Here in the Northeast we rely on a healthy and productive Atlantic Ocean, which is why I was thrilled to learn that the Obama Administration is considering the same protection for New England’s coral canyons and seamounts, a biologically critical area of ocean 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

True to its name, this area is characterized by underwater canyons – some of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon – and mountains extending up to 7,000 feet from the ocean floor. It is a unique underwater environment that hosts a rich and diverse array of life, which is crucial to the health and resilience of New England’s ocean fish and marine mammal populations.

The many colorful cold-water corals that inhabit these canyons and seamounts, some of which are the size of small trees, take centuries to grow and were alive back in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt was signing the Antiquities Act into law.

And with the livelihood of so many, along with the maritime culture and heritage of our coastal communities, hinging on responsible ocean stewardship, this is an area that clearly should be the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument.

Continue reading in The Patriot Ledger.

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.