Experts call for greater urgency in adapting fisheries management to climate change

Posted Aug. 02, 2013, at 9:38 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — John Bullard, northeast regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, sees climate change as not just a cause for immediate alarm, but also an opportunity.

“A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. It looks like a normal day out there, but it’s not — it’s not normal,” Bullard said Thursday during the second day of the two-day first-ever Climate of Change conference, organized by the Rockland-based Island Institute, on the Portland waterfront.

Following the previous day’s discussion of diversifying Maine’s fishing industry, Thursday’s focus was adapting policy and research methods to respond to an environment affected by climate change.

The group, a mix of academics, scientists, lawmakers and fishermen, largely agreed that the need for a dialogue between commercial fisherman, policymakers and the scientific community is pressing.

A central theme from the morning discussion was obvious — change is close, and it’s necessary.

Participants all seemed to agree that many of the current research and policy methods are not flexible or nimble enough to keep up with the rate of change in the climate. The migration of cold-water fish to the north, among other factors, makes data collection and lawmaking complicated.

In a small panel discussion, Linda Mercer, director of the Maine Bureau of Marine Sciences, suggested that more flexible models for managing resources be adopted and that new scientific data be the foundation for the adapted model.

She also suggested that researchers go as far as looking at patterns in data on specific species and not just larger populations in one region.

James Churchill, research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, stressed the importance of migration, mating and spawning patterns for the sustainability of the fisheries and their commercial success.

In the 1990’s, two closed areas were created, one in the Gulf of Maine and the other at Georges Bank, to curtail the mortality of groundfish, according to Graham Sherwood, research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. In the case of haddock, cod and a few other species, the concept seems to work. After steep decreases in the cod population in the ’90s, the numbers are rising, and cod in closed areas are on average one year older than those outside.

However, others cautioned the success of closed areas may be magnified by the relatively bleak state of surrounding areas.

Churchill suggested that closed areas be adapted to move with migratory patterns and spawning areas to protect fish and their eggs at a critical time in their life cycle, allowing them to grow larger and older.

While the group acknowledged the apparent success of area closures, they also pointed to a lack of change in policy beyond that and urged for an ecosystems-based policy.

“We can’t throw in the towel before taking a good punch,” said Tom Dempsey, policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.

Dempsey urged a proactive approach to changing fishery management in the face of climate change, warning scientists against complacency when it comes to balancing the industry and the environment.

But they all agreed — the issue is unavoidable, with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the ocean at 400 parts per million, up from 320 ppm in 1960, causing a rise in the ocean’s acidity.

Lee Crockett, U.S. Oceans director with the Pew Charitable Trusts, also pushed for the proactive approach. “We are in novel territory,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to live with this and make the best of it. It’s going to be here for decades, if not centuries.”

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