Warming seas, falling fortunes: stories of fishermen on the front lines of climate change

Policymakers should heed the stories of fishermen who experience the effects carbon pollution has on their industry, as well as the science behind them.

Introduction and summary
In 2017, Maine’s seafood harvesters landed more than $569 million in seafood, sustaining the unique generations-old culture that distinguishes the Maine coast. Lobsters—worth more than $430 million—accounted for nearly 80 percent by value of that haul. Since 2004, the waters of the Gulf of Maine have warmed faster than nearly any other body of water on Earth, creating ideal temperatures for lobsters and leading to a population boom. Yet, amid the good fortune of this near-record haul—the fourth-highest in Maine history—the state’s lobstermen are far from jubilant as they watch ocean temperatures continue to climb and the lobsters continue their northward shift.

The worry for many is that the waters of the Gulf of Maine may become too warm to support lobsters. Dave Cousens, a former president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told The New York Times, “Climate change really helped us for the last 20 years. Climate change is going to kill us, in probably the next 30.”

The science of climate change in the ocean: Why the stakes are so high

For the third year in a row, 2016 set a record as the hottest year ever measured by scientists,  part of a clear, worldwide warming trend. Yet, even as atmospheric warming causes dramatic impacts such as the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice and supercharged hurricanes,scientists have found that 93 percent of the excess heat trapped by human-made carbon pollution has been absorbed by the ocean. Global warming means ocean warming.

The same carbon pollution responsible for warming is also driving chemical change in the oceans, in a process commonly known as ocean acidification. Ocean waters have absorbed nearly half of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions—those caused by humans and human behavior—in the 19th and 20th centuries, and when seawater absorbs carbon dioxide, it becomes increasingly corrosive. The shells and skeletons of many ocean organisms are made of calcium carbonate, which literally dissolves under high-enough concentrations of acidified seawater. Carbon pollution’s effect on ocean chemistry also threatens fisheries that depend on calcified species such as urchin, oysters, and scallops, or on fish that prey heavily on such calcifiers, such as some salmon. Additionally, some fisheries depend on calcifiers such as coral for fish habitat and are thus adversely affected by ocean acidification.

New England: Maine and Massachusetts

The lobster industry is among those in trouble. Lobster were once plentiful in southern New England but have largely disappeared from those rapidly warming waters over the past 10 years. Instead, the perfect water temperature for lobsters is now found off the coast of Maine, leading to a boom in Maine’s lobster profits. Between 2005 and 2014, Maine lobstermen earned an average of $321 million per year in revenue and supported more than 4,000 harvesting jobs in Maine since 2013. But fishermen are wary of the longevity of this success if the growing rate of carbon emissions is not addressed. “Lobsters have become our only major fishery,” said Richard Nelson, a commercial lobsterman in Friendship, Maine. “And it’s gotten to a bad point, because we have become so dependent on a single species and yet know so little about the impacts of warming and ocean acidification.”

Jack Percy and Richard Gilmore sort their catch off of Phippsburg, Maine, 2007. Credit: Flickr/Mike Timberlake

Nelson has been in the lobster fishery for more than 30 years. He also participated in Maine’s Ocean Acidification Commission, a multistakeholder group that formed in 2014 to assess the state of the scientific research on acidification, as well as the impact that acidification is having on commercially important species. “So far, what we know is that [the lobster] are affected by multiple stressors, such as warming and acidification together, a combination that has shown changes in respiration and swimming rates. We also see this same warming, when joined with nutrient runoff, helps create coastal acidification and also aggravates toxic algal blooms,” Nelson said. “People have to pay attention to the whole thing.”

Lobsters aren’t the only species affected by climate change in Maine. Bill Mook, owner of Mook Sea Farm, one of the largest oyster producers in Maine, started noticing that his oyster larvae were experiencing disruptions and abnormal development. When this began affecting his business, his team started to treat the seawater used in their hatcheries to make it less acidic. Mook’s efforts worked, and his oysters grew properly with this treatment. He believes ocean acidification was to blame for the development problems. From 2003 through 2014, the Atlantic Ocean absorbed more than twice as much carbon dioxide than it did from 1989 through 2003, which has led to a measurable drop in pH.


Ocean acidification is also affecting Alaskan fisheries. Heimbuch said that part of her job has been to talk to people about acidification. “People [are] open to it,” she said. People are “thinking about, ‘How do I make investments and build a business to support my family?’ … It’s crazy for us not to [be] making plans to adapt to ocean acidification.” However, she stopped short of supporting looser regulations: “I don’t necessarily want to do that, because I think strict regulations protect our fisheries.” For Heimbuch, the bigger concern is the pteropods that will be affected by ocean acidification. Pteropods are tiny swimming snails that are a key component of the salmon’s diet and are thought to be particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of the composition of their thin, delicate shells. “Salmon are tightly tied into a complex food web. Pteropods will be impacted by acidification, and we don’t understand how that will shake up the food chain. A change in acidity can also impact the neurological ability of finfish, and my concern will be that we will see big changes in behavior.”

Commercial salmon fishermen work in Bristol Bay, Alaska, on July 4, 2013. Credit: Flickr/Chris Ford

In addition to salmon, the crab industry in Alaska is also experiencing the effects of climate change and acidification. Tyson Fick, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, described the difficulties the red crab population is expected to have over the next 20 years due to ocean acidification. “Last year was the highest temperature ever recorded in the Bering Sea,” Fick noted. “It’s funny, because some people could make an argument about warming being caused by natural cycles, but that argument has no place when it comes to acidification, because it’s chemistry. There’s only one place it comes from and there is zero room for debate that it comes from carbon emissions.”

Fick explained that there will be winners and losers when it comes to ocean acidification and crab fishermen. He pointed out that golden king crab are more tolerant to lower pH water, while others, such as red king crab, can’t tolerate a lower pH. Fick said some fishery managers believe warm water forced the red king crab to gather together in certain colder areas, which he called “areas of prime conditions.” He added, “And they were easy to find, and everyone fished on top of them.” Since the crabs were forced into relatively small areas of cold water, crab catches were record-breaking, despite evidence that their populations had not increased. Frick said, “You look at last year, and the red king crab [harvest] was the highest you have ever seen. Survey results show low abundance, particularly low recruitment. So, what is that?” In the rest of the Bering Sea, according to Fick, crabs were very rare. This type of climate change-driven clustering can eventually lead to poor long-term outcomes, as it gives the impression there are more crabs than there actually are, making it difficult to set sustainable quotas.

Press contact: Sam Hananel, shananel(at)americanprogress.org

Center for American Progress, 10 September 2018. Full press release.


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