In 2019, the world’s oceans reached a dubious milestone.

According to two leading sources—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing—the world’s oceans are warmer than they’ve been in 65 years of record-keeping. And, according to the research nonprofit Climate Central, the warming waters are stressing marine life in saltwater and freshwater environments alike.

The South Atlantic council sets Spanish mackerel management from the Florida Keys to New York. However, the migratory species is increasingly found off New England. 

The South Atlantic council sets Spanish mackerel management from the Florida Keys to New York. However, the migratory species is increasingly found off New England. 

States can react to excessive heat and conditions quickly; New York and Montana, for instance, have restricted or suspended targeting certain species that face undue stress from drought or extreme heat.

But federal management of fisheries is more complicated. Not only do different regions fight for control of dwindling species, but the complexity of the ocean ecosystem makes obtaining complete and accurate data challenging. Scientists can lack data about the physical effects of water temperature, currents and overfishing, as well as biological challenges such as shifting food sources, competition, predators and invasive species, says Greg Stunz, a Texas A&M University marine biology professor, and director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation.

“Our management system is not really set up to do ecosystem management,” Stunz says. “It’s pretty complex. No one disagrees that’s how fisheries should be managed, but when you get down to it, what does that mean, and how do we do it?”

Data-Collection Challenges

A NOAA Fisheries study in 2018 found that numerous species in U.S. coastal waters were expected to move northward and farther offshore as temperatures continued to rise. A National Academy of Sciences study projected the total mass of sea life to decline 5 percent for every 1.8 degrees of temperature increase.

Those types of changes are not what the current system is organized to handle.

“We’ve got a fisheries management assessment structure set up by region, even at the federal level or state level,” says Tom Frazer, director of natural resources and environment at University of Florida, and chief science officer for the state of Florida. The nature of that management structure doesn’t deal well with a dynamic of a distributional shift in fish populations. Going forward, it’s going to be really important from a management perspective to have more communication.”

Migration of species has been a challenge to manage for a while, says John Quinn, chairman of the New England Fisheries Council. Waters off the New England coast have warmed up more than any other coastal areas in the United States — up to 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901, according to a 2019 Climate Central analysis of federal ocean data.

The Northeast American shelf may experience some of the most extreme increases as global ocean temperatures continue rising, according to a study funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and NOAA. That study also predicted substantial shifts in regional fisheries productivity — shifts that don’t always show up in the data fast enough to take action.

“The way fisheries are managed from a federal level, it’s a participatory process,” Frazer says. “There’s opportunity for a lot of public feedback and hearings. It’s an iterative process, so by the time you get to an assessment of what the status of stock might be, things might have changed a bit.”

Many recreational anglers release fish before reaching their quota to conserve the resource.

Many recreational anglers release fish before reaching their quota to conserve the resource.

Shifting Borders

Local, national, regional and international fisheries are “substantially underprepared” for the geographic shifts that climate change will drive in marine animals during the coming decades, according to a report by researchers including Malin Pinsky, associate professor in the Rutgers University Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, and a member of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

The lack of preparation, along with shifting stocks, can lead to conflict between nations as well as states — and the decimation of a species. For example, blueline tilefish were historically caught and managed south of the Virginia-North Carolina border. When the fish moved north, according to the report, “a fishery exploited the stock for nearly a decade without regulation. This situation only changed in 2015 with emergency rules from the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Similar situations could evolve with all kinds of species. As an example, the South Atlantic council sets management policy for dolphin and wahoo along the entire Atlantic coast, with input from members of the Mid-Atlantic and New England councils. The South Atlantic council sets king and Spanish mackerel management from the Florida Keys to New York, with input from the Mid-Atlantic council.

If any species shows up beyond the designated borders, the current council in charge would not be able to protect the species. Other councils would have to decide whether to have a joint plan, or let one council have the lead authority.

Species on the Move

About a year ago, a delegation from the New England council met with members of the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Atlantic councils to discuss how to handle the shifts, Quinn says. Even with that type of communication, changes from one jurisdiction to another can take a long time. For example, a recent change in commercial allocation of summer flounder took four years. Mixed-use fisheries (species that commercial and recreational anglers target) can be even more highly contested.

“It’s a work in progress,” Quinn says of the system. “As these reports come out — there’s clearly this northerly shift — we’ve got to retool the management structure, but that’s something that’s been in place for over 40 years. Permits have been bought and sold, and coastal infrastructure has been built around what species you land. It’s going to take some time to address.”

And while collaboration has increased in stock management among regional science centers and management entities, “there’s no easy answer,” Quinn adds. “You push in one end, and it pushes out at the other end.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council are both considering changes to address stocks, says Spud Woodward, a biologist who spent 34 years managing fisheries for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources before taking a seat on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. For instance, the commission will be considering whether to extend Spanish mackerel management measures into the New England region.

“Integral to this will be determining if the more northerly fish are of the same stock as fish further south,” Woodward says.

The council also plans to add representation from the Mid-Atlantic region to the Dolphin-Wahoo Fishery Advisory Panel, given the increasing occurrence and importance of those species northward, Woodward says.

We’ve got to retool the management structure, but that’s something that’s been in place for over 40 years. Permits have been bought and sold, and coastal infrastructure has been built around what species you land. It’s going to take some time to address.” - John Quinn, chairman New England Fisheries Council

Meanwhile, in Texas, one focus is on the Southern flounder population. It is drastically declining, Stunz says, probably because of overfishing and because the cold winters needed for hatches and spawns aren’t occurring in Texas anymore.

“That’s decreasing the abundance of flounder because we don’t have babies coming in, but the adults are being removed still,” Stunz says. “How do you manage for that? You can decrease size limits, but if there’s not successful spawn, you can’t manage for that. On the other hand, mangrove snapper — those never existed here, and now they are targeted fisheries.”

Experts say flounder in the Gulf of Mexico have had less productive spawns due to warmer winters. 

Experts say flounder in the Gulf of Mexico have had less productive spawns due to warmer winters. 

Ecosystem-Based Approach

The current system requires fish species to be managed where they are, Stunz says. Now, there’s talk about a more ecosystem-based fisheries management approach, he says, “because the more information that you can incorporate into your assessment and allocation decisions, the better.”

Fisheries managers want to be able to use and vet all available information to make well-informed policy decisions. Climate change adds another layer of complexity to that task.

“Hopefully we’ll continue to get better at that,” Stunz says. “The tools are becoming more sophisticated, and the move is certainly to be more comprehensive in our approach to managing fisheries.”

Investment in new technology is crucial, he adds, because if data is weak, managers build more of a cushion into allocation, Stunz says.

“When you have more confidence, then you can relax the buffer that you might impose in a regulatory context,” he says. “If you do that, you can allow people to harvest or access more fish, which in turn generates more economic benefit. It’s important for people to realize that in order to make money, you have to invest money. An investment in data collection can yield tremendous economic upside.”

For anglers, the upshot is likely to be more of a need for understanding and flexibility.

“The distributional patterns of fish will shift, and that will have consequences for how you allocate fisheries,” Stunz says. “That’s just a reality of where I think we’re going.” 

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.

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