This Week on TalkingFish.org – February 1-5

Feb 5, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

February 1 – A Cartoon Crash Course – Thanks to the Pew Charitable Trusts and cartoonist Jim Toomey, the artist behind “Sherman’s Lagoon,” we now have ten animated, and even funny, videos that help explain some of the more complex concepts and actions that go into protecting our oceans. Protecting Ocean Ecosystems, by Talking Fish.

February 2 – Fish Talk in the News – Tuesday, February 2 – In this edition of Fish Talk in the News, WBUR features Cashes Ledge; NE groundfishermen plan for at-sea monitoring costs; Maine shrimp hits the market thanks to spawning study; and FDA bans imports of GM AquAdvantage salmon. In the News, by Talking Fish.

February 4 – NOAA Study: Climate Change Threatens Important Marine Fish and Invertebrate Species – Yesterday, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released a major climate study that evaluated 82 Northeast marine fish and invertebrate species’ overall vulnerability to climate change as well as the potential for population distribution change. The researchers found that half of the species are “highly” or “very highly” vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is the first multispecies assessment of its kind. Science, by Talking Fish.

February 5 – Fish Talk in the News – Friday, February 5 – In this edition of Fish Talk in the News, climate change poses a threat to northeast fish stocks; New England groundfish industry is concerned about new quota cuts; Maine lobster industry is wary as warm water suggests repeat of 2012 season; Reps. Poliquin and Pingree push to protect urchin and sea cucumber fisheries; whale habitat expansion concerns fishermen; Maine will close valuable scallop grounds; Rep. Courtney tells congressional subcommittee that plan would bankrupt lobstermen; and a new study says the U.S. east coast is a sea level rise “hotspot.” In the News, by Talking Fish.

Right Whales and Cashes Ledge: How to Make a Good Thing Last

Feb 5, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Right whale critical habitat

Photo via GARFO GIS Datasets.

In late January, North Atlantic right whales scored a big win when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the critical habitat for the endangered whale from 4,500 square nautical miles to 28,000 square nautical miles.

The original area included only a portion of Cape Cod Bay and an area east of Nantucket near the Great South Channel. This major expansion adds almost all of the Gulf of Maine, east to Georges Bank, and south all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Gulf of Maine expansion includes Cashes Ledge – an area known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of fish and marine mammals and a place that CLF has been fighting to permanently protect for years.

This is great news for the North Atlantic right whale – the world’s most endangered large whale – and for those of us who care about saving it. Expanding the whale’s critical habitat means that federal agencies are thinking more systemically about what the right whale needs not just to survive but to once again thrive – designating not only places where the whales congregate to forage, but also the places that are critical for mating and calving.

This expansion is also a terrific example of ocean use planning in action. Before announcing the final decision, NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, called for public dialogue and input about the proposed expansion. It also allowed for new information to guide and influence its decisions around how to manage and permit other activities (like clean energy projects or industrial exploration) in the expanded areas going forward.

Critical Habitat is Good; Permanent Protection is Better – and Necessary

Right whale calf and mother

Right calf and mother. ©Brian Skerry

According to NOAA, calling an area “critical habitat” means that it contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a particular species – and those features may require special management considerations or protection.

Federal agencies looking to issue permits or companies seeking permits have to work with NOAA to avoid or reduce impacts from their activities on critical habitats. But, a critical habitat designation isn’t as protective as it sounds. It’s more like a “caution” sign than a stop sign. The designation doesn’t establish a refuge for the right whale or its food sources. And it doesn’t specifically put the area off limits or dictate that certain activities cannot occur.

For endangered species, functional critical habitat is the key to survival. We understand this concept well on land. One ongoing success story is China’s giant panda. People around the world are working to secure permanent protections for its habitats to ensure survival of the species. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with the Chinese government to protect 27,000 acres of Pingwu County for the benefit of just 10 giant pandas.

Today, approximately 1,800 giant pandas remain worldwide. In comparison, just over 500 individual North Atlantic right whales are struggling to survive. Yet we have failed to to permanently protect even one acre of the habitat it needs to recover.

Considering that we know where some of the areas so critical to the North Atlantic right whale are, we need to ask why we’ve been successful in protecting lands critical for terrestrial species, but we haven’t given this same level of protection – or attention – to marine species. Cashes Ledge, a small area in the Gulf of Maine, is uniformly recognized as a scientific marine treasure, and already closed to most fishing. Permanently protecting this area would have little negative impact – yet the positive impact protection might have on the North Atlantic right whale could mean the difference between the species’ survival or its extinction.

Conservation Law Foundation believes that it is time to embrace the familiar land-based conservation principles and apply them, based on the best available scientific information, to permanently protect some of the most impressive and ecologically important ocean habitats and resources in the North Atlantic.

Dramatically expanding the critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales was without question a good thing – and so was including Cashes Ledge in that designated area.

Let’s now take a good thing and make it even better by permanently protecting Cashes Ledge. Otherwise, this designation will just be a good thing that wasn’t quite good enough.

 

UPDATE: Misguided Canadian Pipeline Proposal Would More Than Double Oil Tanker Traffic Through the Gulf of Maine

Feb 2, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

An oil tanker in the Bay of Fundy. By Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0

An oil tanker in the Bay of Fundy. By Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0

Update: On Jan. 21, 2016, the Montreal Metropolitan Community – representing 3.9 million Canadians – said it will not support the Energy East proposal, delivering a substantial blow to the project. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will not approve projects without local support, so the move by the MMC puts the new prime minister in the spotlight. 

This is the third 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 second blog in the series unpacks the long-term, big picture impacts for oil exploration in New England. 

TransCanada, of Keystone XL infamy, submitted a revised application recently for its Energy East proposal, a pipeline that would transport millions of gallons of dirty tar sands oil to New Brunswick for refining. That refined petroleum product would then be shipped through the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, and on to locations around the world.

The proposal significantly increases the risk of an oil spill in the Gulf of Maine, which would cause calamitous and lasting damage to its fragile ecosystems.

TransCanada proposes to move this toxic brew more than a thousand miles through converted pipelines that had once been used to transport natural gas ­– and then to store it at a facility in Saint John that will increase its storage capacity to 13.2 million barrels (at 42 gallons to the barrel, that is more than half a billion gallons of oil)!

To export such a high volume, the number of oil super tankers plying the waters of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would more than double – from 115 to more than 280 per year.

A New Caliber of Disaster Potential

Tar sands oil is the most destructive, carbon intensive of all liquid fuels, and keeping tar sands in the ground is critical if we are serious about meeting the goals agreed upon at the climate talks in Paris last December.

When spilled, tar sands oil is also far more dangerous to habitat and animals due to its chemical makeup and viscosity. The aftermath of an Exxon Valdez-like spill from a super tanker carrying tar sands oil would be especially catastrophic.

Bitumen – the substance that results from mixing gritty tar sands oil with natural gas components to make it easier to transport – sinks quickly upon hitting the water. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which advises the U.S. Congress, no one is prepared to appropriately respond to a tar sands oil spill in water. Not first responders, not governments, not even the industry itself has the knowledge or technology to remedy a tar sands oil spill in the ocean.

This makes the risk to the critically important and ecologically sensitive areas in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine simply unacceptable. Let’s remember that the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than almost any other bay, sea or ocean in the world, making it especially vulnerable.

The currents and circulation patterns in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would sweep any oil escaping a tanker into the Canadian Maritimes and coastal Maine waters, and would certainly disrupt the one remaining consistently productive fishing area on Georges Bank as well. A spill similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster could stretch from Canadian waters to Cape Cod.

Canada’s insistence on investing in such a finite, harmful resource as tar sands oil is shortsighted and incredibly risky. Adding such an unnecessary man-made threat to our ocean is a risk we New Englanders simply can’t afford.

 

This Week on TalkingFish.org – January 25-29

Jan 29, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

January 25 – Misguided Canadian Pipeline Proposal Would More Than Double Oil Tanker Traffic Through the Gulf of Maine – TransCanada, of Keystone XL infamy, submitted a revised application recently for its Energy East proposal, a pipeline that would transport millions of gallons of dirty tar sands oil to New Brunswick for refining. That refined petroleum product would then be shipped through the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, and on to locations around the world. The proposal significantly increases the risk of an oil spill in the Gulf of Maine, which would cause calamitous and lasting damage to its fragile ecosystems. By Sean Mahoney, Protecting Ocean Ecosystems.

NOAA expanded critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales to encompass the entire Gulf of Maine. Image via NOAA.

NOAA expanded critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales to encompass the entire Gulf of Maine. Image via NOAA.

January 29 – Fish Talk in the News – Friday, January 29 – In this edition of Fish Talk in the News, a federaljudge denies fishermen’s motion to shift the cost of the at-sea monitoring program to fishermen; the Bangor Daily News tells “how a groundfish disaster today can spawn a different-looking fishery tomorrow”; NOAA Fisheries expands critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales; some dislike proposal to ease long waits for Maine lobstering licenses; Massachusetts Senate approves lobster processing bill; feds to help Gloucester brand its seafood; climate change causes four degree rise in Buzzards Bay; and the U.S. Senate says climate change is not caused by humans. By Talking Fish, In the News.

 

 

Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

Jan 4, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

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.

Photo courtesy NOAA Ocean Explorer

Photo courtesy NOAA

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.

 

 

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

Dec 23, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This is the first in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the second blog, providing background on the history of oil exploration near the Gulf of Maine and the long-term threats this poses to New England 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.    

In New England, witnessing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is an awe-inspiring experience reminding us of the complex and magnificent undersea metropolis that’s just below the surface. Whales ­– humpback, minke, North Atlantic right whales, and more – are iconic New England marine life. People travel here in droves each year to experience the sight of these majestic creatures, contributing significantly to our coastal economies.

Breaching WhaleUnfortunately, recent developments by our neighbors to the north put whales and the region’s economy at risk. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s government granted final approval to a Norwegian energy company, Statoil, to begin offshore oil exploration just east of Georges Bank, off the coast of the province’s Scotian Shelf. This exploratory lease area is in addition to two others, owned by Shell Canada and BP Canada, which also have permission to begin the process of testing for oil.

While Canada has a moratorium on oil exploration in Georges Bank itself, similar to our own, the country has otherwise aggressively pursued offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic. These new leases near Georges Bank are too close for comfort.

The Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank especially, is an ecologically sensitive and biologically rich area. This new oil exploration poses significant and immediate threats to the region’s ecosystems, particularly to marine mammals such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Seismic testing
When drilling occurs, the risks are massive – the worst of which is an oil spill. But even before any drilling occurs, irreversible damage can occur. The first step a company takes in testing for oil is to conduct seismic testing, a process that uses air gun blasts to scan areas for mineral deposits. These blasts must be loud enough to reach the ocean floor, where sensors record and send the data back up to the surface.

During seismic testing, companies run these blasts repeatedly, often 10 seconds apart, 24 hours a day, for many days in a row.

If you can imagine being exposed again and again to an extremely loud, unknown noise for weeks at a time, I think you can understand why this is a problem. As complex creatures who rely on sound waves to communicate, whales are especially at risk.

The noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, causing confusion that could lead whales to abandon habitats and putting them at risk for displacement. The constant noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruptions to normal feeding and mating habits, and chronic health problems from increased stress levels – all of which can have a major impact on an already threatened species’ ability to rebound.

All marine life is important to healthy ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine, but the endangered North Atlantic right whale would be the most vulnerable to seismic testing. Only around 500 whales are alive today, putting them at dire risk of extinction. Threatening even one of these whales threatens the entire species at a time when every whale counts.

A Safe Haven
With climate change and overfishing already putting pressure on our ocean habitats, providing a safe haven for North Atlantic right whales – and all of the marine creatures that depend on a healthy ocean – is more important than ever before.

Conservation Law Foundation has long fought to protect our ocean wildlife – including taking fisheries managers to task for failing to protect some of New England’s most iconic groundfish species from near extinction and fighting oil and gas drilling in Georges Bank 30 years ago. Last year, we worked to ensure protections for North Atlantic right whales when Deepwater Wind sought to create the first offshore wind farm in Rhode Island Sound. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, we successfully came to an agreement with the company to limit pre-construction activities for the turbines during seasons when right whales migrate through the area.

Risks posed from oil exploration are real and happening now, we cannot sit passively by while oil interests threaten our coastal economies and endangered species. Unfortunately, the United States cannot stop Canadian oil exploration in nearby waters. But we can send a strong signal to our northern neighbor by permanently protecting critical ocean areas that can serve as a safe haven for threatened species.

Designating the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument would send a strong message that these areas are important national and international interests worth protecting.

 

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Dec 11, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Atlantic cod

Cod today. ©Brian Skerry.

What the future could look like for Atlantic cod

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 any science 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.

Five Questions for: Dr. Sylvia Earle

Dec 11, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Sylvia dives at Cashes Ledge. Photo:Kip Evans/Mission Blue

Sylvia dives at Cashes Ledge. Photo:Kip Evans/Mission Blue

In August, Dr. Sylvia Earle, world-renowned conservationist, oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and founder/chairman of Sylvia Earle Alliance/Mission Blue, launched a dive expedition to Cashes Ledge, the underwater mountain range 80 miles off the coasts of Portland. Dr. Earle joined the expedition to amplify the efforts of CLF and Mission Blue, as well as scientists, business leaders, environmental groups, and faith leaders, in calling for the White House to declare Cashes Ledge a Marine National Monument.

1. What was it like to dive on Cashes Ledge?
Diving on Cashes Ledge was an experience of a lifetime, in a lifetime of amazing underwater experiences. I saw for myself what scientists have been raving about for years – a miraculous mountain peak that comes close enough to sunlight to be crowned with a thriving forest of kelp and a richly diverse assemblage of coastal marine life in the open sea.

2. What most surprised you about your experience?
It’s so unlikely to have kelp growing out in the open ocean 80 miles from shore. Instead of blowing in the wind, the kelp blows in the currents. I felt like a dancer with these golden silken scarves surrounding me. Fish swam by, found our eyes, and just looked at us. You could almost see the wheels turning in their minds asking, “What are you doing here?” I thought I went down to look at the fish but the fish were looking at me!

3. Why have you declared Cashes Ledge one of your Hope Spots?
Cashes Ledge is the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic. It’s an amazing gathering of fish and other wildlife that wasn’t known outside the fishing community until recent years, when divers and scientists began exploring and documenting the nature of this glorious, golden forest. It’s a place that is a natural for permanent protection – full and enduring protection. That’s what a Hope Spot is about. We look at unique areas, special places that harbor diverse forms of life, and seek to protect them for renewal and survival. Taking care of Cashes Ledge is a symbol of hope – not just hope for the fish, but for us, too.

Dr. Earle dives on Cashes Ledge for the first time. Video: Kip Evans/Mission Blue


4. What do you wish more people understood about the world’s oceans?

Life itself depends on the ocean – and most of life on Earth is under the ocean’s surface. Look at the Earth from outer space – it’s mostly blue. There’s a lot of talk these days about the green movement, but if there’s no blue, there won’t be any green. We have to care for the ocean as if our lives depend on it, because they in fact do.

5. What makes you optimistic about the future of our oceans?
Historically we have thought of the ocean as a place to extract things – fish, oil, gas. But now we know that all life depends on taking care of the ocean. The most important thing we extract from the sea is our very existence. Today, we have a chance with the blue United States to give back to the ocean that gives us so much. Taking positive action to protect the ocean and restore its health is an idea whose time has come.

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

Nov 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Photo credit: Dieter Craasman.

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Photo credit: Dieter Craasman.

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.