Maine fishermen will have to be better informed and more flexible if they are to survive the changes that a warming climate is bringing to Gulf of Maine fisheries.
That was the message from about 100 marine biologists, fisheries managers, commercial fishermen and others who shared scientific findings and anecdotal observations Wednesday in Portland during the first of a two-day Island Institute symposium on climate change and its impact on fisheries.
The message from fishermen and marine biologists was the same: From rising seawater temperatures to lengthening lobster seasons and falling groundfish stocks, the warming climate is bringing change to the fishing industry. Participants agreed that fishermen will have to adapt quickly — and repeatedly — to the changing conditions.
The symposium represented virtually every sector of Maine’s fisheries, and allowed participants to talk about climate change and how it is affecting fishermen and fishing communities, said Rob Snyder, president of the nonprofit Island Institute, based in Rockland.
Getting a more complete picture of such changes is essential to fishermen’s livelihoods, as well as to fisheries agencies that are managing the fisheries, Snyder said.
The Gulf of Maine has experienced significant warming over the past 40 years, said biologist and ecologist Andrew Pershing of the University of Maine/Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Since 2004, the warming has accelerated to 10 times the rate of previous years.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said.
That warming trend has resulted in a number of changes, including extending the lobster season by three to three-and-a-half weeks at both ends. In 2012, that brought earlier and larger catches that contributed to a crash in the lobster market and wholesale prices that fell to about $2.50 per pound.
Traditional species are moving into new areas, and new species — such as black sea bass — are showing up in areas of the Gulf of Maine where they were not commonly found before.
These changes, which many scientists predict will continue, will force fishermen to fish for new species in new locations at different times of the year. Accomplishing that will require planning and political will, presenters said. Flexibility and keeping stocks sustainable are critical issues.
“It makes sense to be very careful with emerging fisheries,” said Malin Pinsky, an ecologist with Rutgers University. Fishermen, consumers and managers cannot just assume that new species will replace those that are depleted or disappeared altogether.
In the last 40 years, lobster populations from the Carolinas to the Gulf of Maine have migrated north at a rate of about 10 miles a decade because of rising water temperatures, Pinsky said.
Management practices will have to adjust to the most current scientific and on-the-water information. This means communication among fishermen, scientists and managers is critical.
“Climate change is happening,” Snyder said. But exactly what that means — and the best ways to respond to it — are still controversial and politically charged issues.
The questions fishermen face now are different from those of even 10 years ago. Now, Pershing said, the key for both managers and fishermen is to be responsive and flexible.
Thursday’s focus will be on strategies for adapting to climate-altered fishing conditions in ways that will keep fish stocks sustainable.
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