The Turning Tides of New England Fisheries

The Turning Tides of New England Fisheries

The commercial skate-fishing catch being unloaded at a dock in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

SourceJohn Greim/LightRocket/Getty

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Andrew Applegate’s family has been in the fishing business since his ancestors moved from Cranbury, New Jersey, to the Sandy Hook area around 100 years ago. Along with some commercial fishing, Applegate’s father ran a couple of large party fishing boats out of Atlantic City, and through the decades the family caught whatever was available. But now, Applegate is part of a New England fishing community forced to depend on fast-changing marine species they’ve never seen in the region before, and give up on others that are dying out.

The Gulf of Maine has witnessed its cod stocks collapse but its lobster population explode. To the south, in contrast to their current success north of Cape Cod, lobsters have suffered shell-wasting disease and poor productivity down into the Mid-Atlantic. And black sea bass is being found in northern New England when 20 years ago that would’ve been unheard of, says Michael Pentony, regional head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic fisheries division. In the face of such changes, those involved in fisheries management are trying to prepare for a murky future. Reliable and more timely data paired with flexible regulations could, they hope, allow those in the business to adapt as fisheries change in the coming years.

Every year is completely different from the year before.

Ben Martens, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association

These changes are forcing some to disregard historical knowledge gathered in logbooks by generations of fishermen who recorded where to catch certain fish at certain times of the year, says Ben Martens, the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“Now you just have to throw those out. They don’t work anymore. And every year is completely different from the year before,” Martens says. “Sometimes we have water that’s too warm; this year we had cooler water. We’re seeing a lot more turbulence in what’s happening in our planning and in our business stability.”

In addition to the cultural significance fishing has among New England communities, it’s also a valuable industry. In 2015, New England commercial fishery landings were valued at $1.2 billion, and fisheries supported almost 160,000 jobs in 2012, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. That industry is now grappling with a sense of flux.

Though some species variations are caused by other factors, warming waters is central to many fluctuating fish behaviors. The Gulf of Maine has seen surface temperatures rise faster than 99 percent of the rest of the ocean over the past decade, a 2015 report from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the NOAA found. The warming is partly because of regular climate shifts and partly because of global climate change, the report said.

In response, Applegate says, some fish populations are moving to deeper, colder water to the northeast. Others, like some off Massachusetts’ coast, move to shallower areas that retain cold water longer in the springtime. “The key ingredient there is they’re moving or becoming more productive in areas where the water temperatures are favorable to them,” Applegate says.

Warming ocean temperatures are changing the compositions of fish available to fishermen, but allocations of what fishermen can catch are hardwired, Pentony says. So, to protect the well-being of both fishermen’s businesses and fish stocks, those involved with fisheries management in the area are looking to revamp how the industry is regulated.

At the federal level, Congress is in the process of reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is the primary law governing federal marine fisheries. Its last reauthorization in 2007 was focused on preventing overfishing and rebuilding resources, Applegate says. “Now the tide seems to be turning a bit in terms of providing managers with more flexibility to manage our resources.”

One potential option is a shift to allocating catch limits based on fish surveys that monitor where species are abundant, Pentony says. The U.S. and Canada already have a system based on this to manage groundfish stocks the two countries share. So, if 75 percent of the stock is located on the Canada side, then Canadians would be allocated 75 percent of the catch.

Understanding how fisheries are evolving and figuring out how to manage them will require more reliable and immediate data, Martens says. Currently, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is working to outfit fishing vessels with cameras to record catches and discards, which could help incorporate the data fishermen are already collecting into the scientific process. Martens also says increasing the accountability of reporting will be essential for creating effective regulations.

Still, the process for establishing new fisheries management practices is democratic — everyone, from fishermen to government officials, has a seat at the table — potentially making coming to a consensus difficult, since some stakeholders will lose allocation and revenue, Applegate says.

At the same time, Martens hopes involving all stakeholders from throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic coast will expose each other to alternate perspectives and the broader picture. “We’re all in the same proverbial boat, and we need to be rowing in the same direction if we want to find success as a region,” Martens says.

To Applegate, the solution, especially at an individual level, is straightforward, and rooted in his family’s success over generations. Being adaptive, Applegate says, was key, and even now, for him, it’s the joy of being out on the boat that draws him to fishing.

“I just like being out on the ocean, seeing different things and having some freedom,” says Applegate.

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