Updated on April 11, 2013
By the early 1990’s, fisheries had depleted several of New England’s fish species, like cod, haddock, and flounders. Fishermen had been catching too many fish and fishing had degraded important fish habitats. Since then, better fisheries management has enabled some species to recover to healthy abundances. But unfortunately, several other species have struggled to recover.
In recent years, rising ocean temperatures have further threatened New England’s struggling fish populations. As a result of record high temperatures fish have moved northwards and offshore, retreating to cooler waters. In some cases this means they have moved out of US waters. As well, warming temperatures can affect fish growth, reproduction, and their overall survival.
Today with several fish species remaining at low abundances (like the iconic Atlantic cod), fishermen struggling to make a living, and now global warming’s added threat – Many are concerned about the future of New England’s fish and fisheries. Fisheries scientists and mangers face a tough challenge: How can we protect these fish and once again revitalize New England’s fisheries?
Well, scientists have put forth two very conflicting recommendations.
Fisheries scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently helped develop a strategy for helping wildlife adapt to global warming. The strategy: conserve habitat to support healthy fish and protect ecosystem functions. Specifically, NOAA scientists suggest reducing destructive catch methods, like bottom trawling, and protecting important fish habitats from destructive bottom gears. Hopefully, if we protect fish as best we can and minimize other human impacts, fish will find a way to adapt to climate change. This sounds like a good idea, right?
But disconcertingly, those same NOAA scientists who say we should protect fish habitat to help fish deal with climate change, are currently considering a proposal to un-do protection for 5,000 square miles of ocean habitat in New England’s waters. They are considering opening up more than half of New England’s current protected habitat areas to bottom trawl fishing – areas that have been closed to fishing for nearly two decades and that provide critical protection to numerous juvenile and adult fishes, as well as other wildlife. The reasoning: give fishermen more opportunities to catch fish to provide them economic relief during this difficult time [The US Department of Commerce recently declared a commercial fisheries disaster in New England].
Unfortunately, this idea lacks common sense. Opening up the closed habitat areas would un-do the protections scientists put in place to rebuild New England fishes in the first place. And it goes against the scientists own advice for combating global warming – a very real problem for New England fishes!
Hopefully, NOAA scientists will realize this before it is too late. Because opening up the closed areas could jeopardize these fishes’ ability to overcome global warming’s challenges and the future of New England’s fisheries.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.