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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

This Week on TalkingFish.org – November 23-27

Nov 27, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

November 24 – Fish Talk in the News – Tuesday, November 24 – In this edition of Fish Talk in the News, Science Magazine publishes a special oceans issue; NOAA Fisheries releases a draft Action Plan for Fish Discard and Release Mortality Science; SmartCatch develops a camera to look inside fishing nets; a Gloucester-based seafood processing company owner is indicted for not paying taxes; and scientists research using soy-based food to feed farm-raised fish. In the News, by Talking Fish.

November 25 – Thanksgiving Eel: A Fish to be Thankful For – Around this time of year, people are eagerly thinking about the food that they will prepare for their Thanksgiving Day feast. While turkey has become the contemporary centerpiece of the holiday meal, it may be surprising to know that originally, a fish was served as one of the main dishes. New England Fisheries, by Catherine Morse.

The Climate Change Connection: The Warming Gulf of Maine Needs Protected Areas

Nov 24, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –President Theodore Roosevelt

Photo ©Brian Skerry

Photo ©Brian Skerry

Considering how quickly our planet is warming, and what little is being done to combat it by our national government, this quote has never been more relevant or applicable.

Here in New England, our ocean is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – with one study showing that the Gulf of Maine is warming 99% faster than ocean waters elsewhere on the planet. If that’s not alarming enough, we’re also seeing whole populations of species (such as lobster) moving toward colder waters – which could spell disaster for New England’s economy. And, we are just beginning to understand the effects of ocean acidification on our shellfish populations, with much more to learn before we’ll know how to adapt.

But, what gives us hope amidst this dire news is that we New Englanders, whose lives – and livelihoods – are intertwined with a healthy ocean, have long been champions and leaders for its protection.

Conservation Law Foundation has advocated for ocean conservation in New England for decades, from our fight to stop oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank in the 70s, to our work to protect our iconic cod fishery from extinction, to our commitment to the state and regional ocean planning processes. Today, we’re rallying the public to support the protection of two of the Atlantic’s most fragile and vulnerable areas – the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts. We’re imploring President Obama to create a Marine National Monument, which can give these special places the highest possible level of protection.

You may be thinking – what does any of this have to do with climate change? The answer is this: Conservation and climate change are inherently connected. President Roosevelt, who uttered the words above, understood the importance of conserving such vital places – he knew that some places were just too beautiful, unique, and fragile to be disturbed or exploited, even if resources such as gold, oil, or gas were to be found there. What he couldn’t have known then is something we do know now: Creating fully protected marine areas is a critical step in our defense against climate change.

Studies of protected areas show that the robust ecosystems they contain are better able to withstand the stress of warming temperatures. The complete and relatively pristine habitats at Cashes Ledge and the Coral Canyons and Seamounts should be kept intact ­– so they can continue to be used as an underwater laboratory for marine scientists as we work urgently to identify how climate change is impacting our oceans and how we can best respond.

If and when the day comes that we are able to stop or even reverse global warming, we need to have done the legwork now to prepare. Will species damaged from warmer temperatures recover and thrive again? Will ocean plant life maintain the ability to provide us with the oxygen we need? Will our children ever get to gaze in wonder at a North Atlantic right whale breaching the ocean’s surface?

We can’t solve climate change in a day. We know it will take a comprehensive, long-term effort. But we should do what can be done today – right now, with what we have, in New England to protect our most significant places for our children and grandchildren. We believe a Marine National Monument designation is the first, best course of action for New England’s ocean right now.

 

After Successful Fall Meeting, the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan Enters the Final Stretch

Nov 24, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Photo by Brian Skerry.

The North Atlantic is renowned for its incredible beauty, access to iconic keystone species, and rich maritime history. But today, New England’s coasts and ocean are busier than ever, with more stakeholders and a more diverse complexity of interests than ever before. A regional ocean plan will drastically reduce conflict amongst ocean users, break down the silos separating state and federal agencies, and assert a science-based approach to effective decision making.

Three years into New England’s ocean planning process – which was set in motion by President Obama’s 2010 executive order on ocean planning – the body charged with creating the plan is nearing a major milestone: the release of the first draft of the plan next March. The Northeast Regional Planning Body’s (NRPB) meeting in Portland, Maine, last week was the last before that draft is completed and presented to the public.

“You are creating history. You are the first…We want to help every step of the way.”

Appropriate words from Beth Kerttula, Director of the National Ocean Council, as she closed out the final moments of last week’s NRPB meeting. Expressing admiration and encouragement, Kerttula’s statement was more than just a supportive message from the White House – it was also a call for the planning body to be steadfast in the final push towards a finished draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan.

New England was first out of the gate in forming a regional planning body. For the last three years, the NRPB, consisting of balanced state, federal, and tribal representation, has directed the cultivation of stakeholder input to be incorporated into the plan.

When the NRPB convened November 16-17, the atmosphere was the most productive yet. The public witnessed the progress of every chapter within the draft regional ocean plan, marking an encouraging shift from what were once merely ideas to substantial chapter outlines and near-complete spatial data.

As the NRPB begins to piece it all together, members discussed agency best practices, science and research priorities, implementation, and the long-term vision for the finished plan.

Agency best practices

Ensuring that state and federal entities are effectively communicating with each other is a cornerstone to effective ocean planning. To mitigate conflict, the best possible data should guide decision-making, and all impacted stakeholders should be engaged before, during, and after plan implementation.

Last week’s meeting made clearer what these agency best practices will achieve. Several suggestions were proposed by the NRPB, including the consistent use of the data portal – an online, publicly accessible marine spatial data library. Best practices will also ensure better coordination with federal and state entities and federally recognized tribes, and guide how to effectively implement the regulatory framework prescribed in the ocean management plan.

Science and research priorities

The regional ocean plan will be transformational in improving ocean management stewardship, and also as a plan itself: one that embraces long-term adaptability. The NRPB provided an update about future science and research priorities that will not only improve upon the already impressive collection of marine data and maps, but more specifically, target existing gaps in knowledge and understanding, ensuring effective implementation of the regional ocean plan into the future.

What’s next?

Three years into the planning process, the NRPB is now in the final stretch! By this time next year, New England will have a completed regional ocean plan, the first in the nation. Currently, the NRPB has their collective nose to the grindstone until March of next year, when the draft will be released. Stakeholders will then have the opportunity to provide feedback over a proposed 45-day comment period, when the draft plan is presented in public meetings in every New England state. At the end of the public comment period, the plan will be submitted to the National Ocean Council for its ultimate approval.

Come fall 2016, with each stage of the approval process completed, New England will begin implementing the plan – a culmination of countless hours of planning, stakeholder engagement efforts, and data development.

Conservation Law Foundation applauds the incredible work of the NRPB, the continued support of the National Ocean Council, and ocean stakeholders for their commitment and input.

It is always great to be first, but even better when it leads to improved ocean stewardship and long-term leadership for the stakeholders who depend upon the ocean’s health and vitality.

Faces of Ocean Planning | Opportunities to connect with the ocean at New England Science and Sailing

Nov 18, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

MaryHorrigan3Welcome to Faces of Ocean Planning, where we take you behind the scenes to feature people and organizations who use the ocean in a variety of ways and are engaged in the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan process. 

The clock reads 11am, and New England Science and Sailing, located in Stonington, CT, is quiet – though it won’t be that way for long. Soon, groups of kids and teenagers will be arriving back from their morning lessons for lunch.

New England Science and Sailing, or NESS for short, is a source of education and fun for the surrounding communities, providing programs year-round for everyone from preschoolers to adults.

Mary Horrigan, program director at NESS, gives us a tour of the facility, which she says provides a conduit for people young and old to feel connected with the ocean. “People are disconnected from this resource that’s right in their community,” she says. “One of our goals is to get people comfortable with being in the water.”

And with more people comfortable in the water, the more likely they are to understand and respect the ocean and what’s happening within it.

From adventure sports, to marine science, power boating, to, of course, sailing, NESS offers something for everyone, and with that comes an opportunity for everyone to grasp ocean planning and management concepts.

Horrigan says that all of their programming starts with making sure attendees understand the imperative to “Respect everything in the area,” whether that means catching and releasing critters as part of learning about ecosystems, or respecting other ocean users in the area. And, when your neighbors include fishermen, recreational users, and the Navy, respecting other ocean users takes a fair amount of communication and collaboration.

Expanding on local planning success

P1030941NESS’ daily operations prove to be a salient metaphor for the importance of ocean planning on both a local and regional scale. Every day, Horrigan and her students balance their activities in concert with their neighbors large and small. Just as it takes an ample amount of effort by everyone at the local level to ensure that no two uses conflict with each other, a regional ocean management plan (like the one currently in development by the Northeast Regional Planning Body) will ensure the same for all who frequent New England’s working waterfronts, coasts, and ocean.

“We’re out there using the ocean, and we need access, especially in certain areas where we want to connect to certain ecosystems,” Horrigan says. “Right now we can access the coves, but what if the submarines want to go through there?”

She says NESS’s interest in ocean planning is to provide continued access to areas for education – and in doing so, they’ll create new generations of ocean users who will benefit from and be invested in ocean management for decades to come. “The children who go through our programs learn and feel proud of the ocean and where they’re from,” Horrigan says. “We want to provide more opportunities for that.”

Facilitating future success

New England’s regional ocean plan was driven by the National Ocean Policy executive order in 2010 and will be completed in 2016. Once implemented, the plan will help stakeholders to better collaborate, share information, and facilitate effective decision-making for the management of our ocean.

As NESS fosters a growing community of burgeoning young ocean lovers, ocean planning in the northeast will provide the framework through which such stewardship can thrive for years to 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.