The climate is changing much faster than fishing regulations are changing

Officials overseeing fishing in the Gulf of Maine and across the East Coast are carefully considering how fishing regulations will need to evolve to keep up with the accelerated and unpredictable changes brought on by climate change.

Fisheries managers from organizations across the East Coast are pondering scenarios they may face in the coming decades as water temperatures rise, fish stocks fluctuate and species grow to new areas.

Several fisheries experts have said they will likely have to reinvent the way management has worked in the past.

“I think people recognize that little tweaks and band-aids might not be what we need here,” said Deirdre Boelke, fisheries analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council and one of the leaders working on the scenario planning effort.

Even before the effects of climate change became better known, fisheries management had a reputation for being complex and cumbersome. There are different levels of governance, with councils and managers making decisions at state, regional, coastal and national levels.

“To say it’s a glacial process is to say it with kindness,” said Gib Brogan, fisheries analyst at Oceana, an international conservation group.

It is also historically a reactive field. Something happens, officials watch it, study it, and eventually make a decision, sometimes years later.

But with the pace of change accelerating and existing management systems strained, being slow and reactive may no longer be an option.

“We try to be more proactive here,” Boelke said.

One of the greatest areas of interest is in the movement of fish populations. That’s something already happening in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming 99% faster than the rest of the world’s oceans and just recorded its highest temperatures on record last year.

“You’re starting to see species that were more abundant in the southern range making their way into some of the more northern ranges,” said Toni Kerns, director of fisheries policy at the Marine Fisheries Commission. of the Atlantic States.

When a significant amount of fish moves from one area managed by one regulatory agency to another, regulatory oversight can become complicated. The headliner for this right now is black bass fishing.

A temperate reef fish largely concentrated between Cape Cod and Cape Canaveral, black bass was managed using historic quotas that were put in place about 20 years ago.

In the past, fish were a rare sight in Maine. The stock traditionally stopped near Massachusetts, and the epicenter was off New Jersey.

But as the waters have warmed over the past decade, the species has begun to spread further north.

Marissa McMahan, director of fisheries for Manoment, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit coastal ecology research organization, recalls first seeing black bass in greatest numbers off Maine in 2012. , when the Gulf of Maine experienced an ocean heat wave.

That summer, she caught between 30 and 40 black bass while fishing with her father off Georgetown. Since then, it has become common for lobsters to haul black bass into their traps, but they throw them overboard due to the small quota Maine and neighboring New England states receive, McMahan said.

Connecticut has seen huge increases in the number of black bass in Long Island Sound in recent years, but until recently only had one percent of the inshore quota. Maine gets half a percent.

These disparities between the amount of fish available and the size of the quota can raise thorny questions for regulators.

If a fish population in a new area becomes larger than in the traditional area, does management switch to a different regional body? Do they continue to share the stock? How are the allowances then distributed?

“It’s never happened before,” McMahan said. “There’s no nice roadmap for how it works.”

What can make managing shifting stocks such as black bass even more difficult is that they don’t always migrate from one line of management to another in an orderly fashion.

Despite expanding its range northward, the black bass has not abandoned its historic southern fishing grounds. These traditional ports want to keep their allocations while New England states seek a bigger slice of the pie.

“It’s not black and white,” Kerns said.

There are also questions about whether the science used to make management decisions will need to change. In the context of climate change, long-running historical surveys may no longer be the indicator they once were.

Surveys are usually conducted in a designated part of the ocean at the same time of year each year. These surveys and other models that regulators use to understand the health of fish populations are the basis for many management decisions.

But if stocks move and patterns change under climate change, these surveys, while providing good historical data, could soon look for areas that don’t give accurate representations of what’s happening to a species, said Carla Guenther. , chief scientist at Maine. Coastal Fisheries Center.

“Our surveys may be in the wrong place and we miss the clues of change,” she said.

Scientists are reluctant to drastically alter these long-running surveys, as this would eliminate any value from past data.

“You almost have to create a whole other survey and run them in parallel,” Guenther said. “And it’s really expensive.”

Scientists may need to work hand-in-hand with industry to get better real-time information.

For black bass, these changes are starting to happen. McMahan said she conducts interviews with people in the fishing industry to help scientists better understand their data, as well as try new forms of investigation.

The scenario planning process is expected to continue until the end of the year, when officials begin offering potential answers to what they might see in the future. But, like everything in fisheries management, it will take time.

“There may not be major changes right away, but I don’t think managers are averse to thinking outside the box,” Boelke said. “I think there’s broad recognition that things might have to change.”

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